Proposals to have taxpayers pay for religious education are being pushed in Washington and St. Paul. These voucher plans should be resisted. Our opposition should be based on arguments that can ultimately help us overcome our current polarization and recognize that shared American values can guide us.
For more than 200 years, Americans have fought for public schools that uphold the values of religious freedom, equality, and social cohesion. For guidance, we can look back to our beginning.
In 1784, Patrick Henry introduced a bill in Virginia that would levy a property surtax and authorize each taxpayer to designate the church that would receive his payment for religious teachers. James Madison led the opposition to Henry’s bill. He wrote a “Memorial and Remonstrance” against the plan, emphasizing religious freedom. He argued that religious conviction was reserved for the conscience of each person. He famously wrote, “Who does not see . . . that the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?”
The modern voucher bills fail Madison’s standard for religious freedom. Many communities in Minnesota have enough Catholic or Lutheran residents that they can support a church-run school. There might not be enough Methodists, Jews or Muslims in the town to support their own religious schools. With tax-supported vouchers, Methodist taxpayers can be forced to support the Catholic school and the teaching of Catholic beliefs with which they may disagree.
The principle of religious freedom is reinforced in the Minnesota Constitution which says, “in no case, shall any public money or property be appropriated or used for the support of schools” that teach religious doctrine.
Madison also declared that Henry’s proposed bill would violate the “equality which ought to be the basis of every law . . .” Though the bill he opposed expressly favored Christianity over other religions, the principle of equal treatment of religious views still applies to today’s voucher proposals. Methodists in the town with a Catholic school aren’t receiving any public money to support the teaching of their religion, so they are not being treated equally.
In addition, Methodists may be sending children to a public school. Under the federal and Minnesota voucher proposals, the private or religious schools that receive public money are not treated equally with the public schools. The religious schools don’t have to test students the way the public schools do and aren’t held to the same standards. These differences in treatment are acceptable when the religious schools aren’t receiving public money for teaching religion, but not when they accept publicly-funded scholarships.
This value we place on equality is restated in the Minnesota Constitution which directs the Legislature to establish a “general and uniform system of public schools.” Publicly funded private and religious schools that are not equally, publicly accountable violate the state Constitution and the principle of equality.
Madison was also concerned with social cohesion. He thought taxpayer support for religious schools would destroy the “moderation and harmony” that religious tolerance had produced. For decades Americans have looked to public schools to educate all kids, preparing them for roles as citizens in a republic. Public schools have incorporated immigrants into our communities and created connections across class and racial differences. We have balanced the goal of cohesion with individual liberty. Parents have the right to send their children to private or religious schools, at their own expense.
The new voucher proposals upset the social/individual balance and give no value to social cohesion. By favoring religious schools with tax support but no social obligations, we risk further damage to social harmony.
One of the arguments for these proposals has been that education tax credits or tax credit scholarships are not the spending of public money. Minnesota law does not accept that distinction. Our law says that state policy objectives are achieved both by direct expenditure of governmental funds and by granting tax relief or providing tax expenditures. In Minnesota, the cost to the taxpayer shows up in the accounting for the voucher proposals in the omnibus tax bill spreadsheets. It is public money whether we spend it directly or through tax relief.
Madison’s arguments were effective. Patrick Henry’s bill died in committee and Thomas Jefferson’s proposal for a bill guaranteeing religious freedom passed. Madison was one of the fathers of the Constitution and helped lead passage of the Bill of Rights in Congress. The Minnesota Constitution expresses the same democratic values.
The radical proposals for tax credit vouchers undermine these traditional American values of religious freedom, equality, and social cohesion. We can fight to preserve them by opposing these harmful ideas just the way Madison and Jefferson did.
Steve Kelley is a senior fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota.