Archives for category: Religion

The East Ramapo school district is in terrible trouble. The majority of voters are Orthodox Jews, whose children attend religious schools. The public schools are predominantly African-American and Hispanic. The elected school board is dominated by members of the local Orthodox Jewish majority. They have cut spending for the public schools and are accused of diverting money to private yeshivas. which their children attend.

Currently, a bill is in the Legislature to establish a state monitor to protect the rights of the students in the public schools. There is intensive political pressure to kill the bill.

“A bill that would establish a state monitor for the East Ramapo School District, where a school board dominated by Orthodox Jews has drawn criticism for diverting money from public schools to children in local yeshivas, faces an uncertain future after running into resistance in the New York Legislature…..

“Roughly 9,000 students, the vast majority of them black or Latino, attend public schools in the district, while about 24,000 students who live there attend yeshivas. Because they vote in large numbers, Orthodox Jews have held a majority of board seats in East Ramapo since 2005. Since 2005, the board has made severe cuts to public schools, eliminating 445 positions; reducing full-day kindergarten to a half-day; and dropping half the district’s athletic programs and extracurricular activities, the state investigation found.

During the same period, spending on the transportation of students to private schools has increased sharply, and the district has in some cases paid for special education students to attend private schools when similar services were available in public schools. Parents of public school students have grown distrustful of the board, whose meetings have at times devolved into shouting matches between members and the public.”

The Board of Regents should step in to protect the students.

I am generally opposed to state takeovers, as in Newark, where the state has been in control for 20 years. State control is not a way to improve schools. But when the local board is not acting in the best interest of children, as in East Ramapo, action is necessary.

Governor Andrew Cuomo has proposed a tuition tax credit bill that is widely recognized as a backdoor voucher. The tax credits would benefit wealthy individuals and corporations. Cuomo has said this measure is a high-priority for him, and he has campaigned with Catholic clerics and in Orthodox Jewish communities.

The rationale, as with all privatization proposals, is to help low-income students escape “failing schools.” In fact, the plan will drain at least $150 million annually from the state’s education funds, which will harm far more low-income students than those who depart for religious schools.

Bruce Baker has taken a close look at the way the tuition tax credit actually works, and it is very disturbing. He notes that an Orthodox Jewish sect created a tiny village in Néw York called Kiryas Joel. It was started in the late 1970s, is populated mainly by Satmar Jews, whose first language is Yiddish. The village sought recognition from the state as an independent school district, which would have been exclusively religious in nature. In 1989, the legislature complied, but the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the law.

Baker quotes this summary:

“In a 6-to-3 decision, the Court held that the statute’s purpose was to exclude all but those who lived in and practiced the village enclave’s extreme form of Judaism. This exclusionary intent failed to respect the Establishment Clause’s requirement that states maintain a neutral position with respect to religion, because it clearly created a school zone which excluded those who were non-religious and/or did not practice Samtar Hasidism. Indeed, the very essence of the Establishment Clause is that government should not demonstrate a preference for one religion over another, or religion over non-religion in general.”

Ironically, as Baker shows, Cuomo’s proposal would give Kiryas Joel what it lost at the Supreme Court.

Folks, as vouchers and tuition tax credits spread, we are heading into uncharted waters: the state will subsidize Protestant schools, Catholic schools, Jewish schools, Muslim schools, evangelical schools, and schools of every other religion and sect.

Is this about better education? What do you think?

Our Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution and the Amendments with full knowledge of the religious wars that had devastated Europe for centuries. They wanted Americans to have freedom of religion but they did not want the state to establish or sponsor any religion. They were wiser than us.

Writing in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, a group of Texas pastors expressed their support for public education and their strong opposition to vouchers for religious institutions. They believe in separation of church and state.

 

They wrote:

 

Speaking passionately and personally, we pastors are for Texas children, and we are alarmed at the language and legislation coming from some of the most powerful people in our land. It attacks neighborhood and community schools and the dedicated, faithful educators who nurture and instruct our children.

 

The Texas Senate recently passed Senate Bill 4, providing tuition tax credits to donors giving scholarships to private schools. These are plainly private school vouchers.

 

The lieutenant governor’s hand-picked advisory board issued a letter calling every public school classroom “a Godless environment.”

 

We are offended. Several of our spouses and many of our members work in public schools, and many of our children attend them. We are certain they take God with them.

 

We see first-hand the dedicated servants committed to the moral, ethical and emotional well-being of children as well as their academic preparation. We know the love with which counselors, administrators, classroom teachers and other staff work with the broad range of students.

 

They encourage all, fretting over those with particular challenges, pouring their hearts, their hours, their energies into the precious lives of children, no matter their native ability, economic background or ethnicity. Former U.S. Sen. John Danforth, R-Mo., also an Episcopal priest, points out that objects — like chewing gum — may be kept out of schools, but not God. God is the creator of heaven and earth.

 

Pickpocketing public coffers while simultaneously attacking public schools — anchor of the common good — seems to us inadequate leadership.

 

We applaud the 12 senators who opposed the disappointing voucher legislation, and we urge our representatives in the Texas House to defeat vouchers. Here’s why:

 

Our state Legislature has repeatedly rejected private school vouchers because they divert public money to religious schools in violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits any establishment of religion.

 

This time the ruse is not to give religious schools money directly but simply to allow a reduction of funds in the public treasury to be diverted to private schools.

 

Religious liberty is at stake. The separation of church and state is intended not to protect the state from the church, but to protect the church from the state.

 

With Thomas Jefferson, we believe it is sinful and tyrannical for government to compel people to pay taxes for the propagation of religious opinions with which they disagree, or even with which they agree. Authentic religion must be wholly uncoerced.

 

Faith should be dependent on the persuasive power of the truth it proclaims and not on the unwanted, and unneeded, assistance of the Texas Legislature.

 

George W. Truett, pastor of Dallas’ First Baptist Church for the first half of the 20th century, said on the steps of the nation’s capital: “Religion needs no prop of any kind from any worldly source, and to the degree it is thus supported, it is a millstone hanged about its neck.”

 

As a practical matter, vouchers channel public monies to private schools with no public accountability. Private schools could use public money to discriminate on race, gender, religion and special needs.

 

Private schools define and meet their constituency’s needs, but public money must come with public scrutiny.

 

Vouchers have always been defeated in Texas because they neglect the lawful, public system and, thus, violate the Texas Constitution.

 

Article 7, Section 1, says: “A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.”

 

Texas benefits from a robust economy, yet hovers near the nation’s bottom in per-pupil spending. We feast at bounty’s table while some children subsist on crumbs.

 

Education is God’s gift to all persons. Education is a core component of democracy.

 

We pray the Texas House will defeat vouchers by whatever name.

 

Let us, rather, defend and protect public education in Texas, and let us affirm and support those who shape children on our behalf.

 

Read more here: http://www.star-telegram.com/opinion/opn-columns-blogs/other-voices/article20059371.html#storylink=cpy

 

 

Writing in the Houston Chronicle, Chris Ladd describes a voucher proposal that just passed the State Senate as the most sweeping privatization plan in the nation. He calls it “neo-Confederate.” It is a stunning editorial that should be read by everyone who thinks that public education is a public responsibility and that public money should not be funneled to religious institutions. Hopefully, good common sense  will prevail in the state House, but one never knows.

 

Ladd writes:

 

Texas’ legislature is poised to deliver a massive gift to the state’s religious fundamentalists. The Senate has passed the boldest school privatization program in the country, a pilot program that would finally neuter the “godless” public schools. This is what happens when you place a mildly deranged radio host in a state’s most powerful elected office.

 

Sending public school students to private religious schools may not seem like a ticket to a well-educated citizenry prepared for 21st century demands. That’s ok. Those are not the goals of this program. Legislators are looking for ways to further cut taxes and rescue Texas children from the godless influence of science, history, and empirical knowledge.

 

There’s nothing particularly revolutionary about school vouchers. Thirteen states plus DC already have programs that let students attend private institutions with public funding under some limited circumstances. What makes Texas’ proposal special is its ambitious scope and its potential to remove the last major edifice of public capital in Texas…..

 

So, let’s review. Texas’ proposed school reform would, at least on a limited scale for now, allow taxpayers to opt out of paying taxes to public schools in order to direct their contributions to EAO’s. Those entities would decide which students to fund in private schools, with no constraints on sending students to religious academies and no oversight on which students they fund.

 

If expanded, this offers Texas’ religious fundamentalists a huge achievement. They could finally destroy their most hated public institution – the schools. This proposal would gradually starve the public schools of their revenue stream, further cutting the amount that the state pays after years of careful under-funding. Meanwhile it would leave the public schools trapped under their existing infrastructure and mandates, a trap that would finally finish off the beast.

 

Undersized vouchers would fail to deliver enough funding to support a competent private education. Affluent families would get to take the money and run, receiving a state subsidy which they could combine with their family’s own contributions to pay for a reasonably good private education. Middle income families who can’t afford to pay above the voucher value would be left in the lurch, trapped between a collapsing public school system and a collection of cheap, storefront Christian madrassas.

 

A new generation of young people will be spared from learning about their history or discovering anything about the natural world that might challenge their religious assumptions. They’ll be ignorant, bigoted, and reliably pious, which this legislature will see as a big fat win.

 

The roots of this concept are perhaps even worse than the shape of the plan itself. In response to the Supreme Court’s decision striking down racial discrimination in schools, Georgia passed a constitutional amendment in 1954 allowing their legislature to privatize the entire school system. They never took that radical step, but the law remained in place until Georgia introduced a new constitution in 1982.

 

One of the architects of Texas’ current plan is Arthur Laffer, a man who has manufactured a successful career out of being wrong about everything. He became famous for formulating what George Bush, Sr. famously called “voodoo economics.” Laffer most recently used his policy voodoo to rip the bottom out of Kansas’ state finances. People are still listening to this guy because results don’t matter in politics.

 

It isn’t clear whether the current proposals can gain enough support to pass in this session. The Senate has already approved the plan, but its future in the House is uncertain.

 

What is clear is that Texas’ experiment with radical Neo-Confederate government is reaching a crucially painful stage and there is no relief in sight. This disastrous and bizarre proposal may fail this year, but there is nothing to stop it from emerging again and again until it, something even worse, finally passes. Elections have consequences and there are no signs of Texas elections delivering sanity any time soon.

Indiana and some other states have enacted or plan to enact laws legalizing discrimination against same-sex couples. Blogger and teacher Kenneth Bernstein sent me this excellent article by Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, who is openly gay. Here is Ken’s reaction.

Cook writes:

“There’s something very dangerous happening in states across the country.

“A wave of legislation, introduced in more than two dozen states, would allow people to discriminate against their neighbors. Some, such as the bill enacted in Indiana last week that drew a national outcry and one passed in Arkansas, say individuals can cite their personal religious beliefs to refuse service to a customer or resist a state nondiscrimination law.

“Others are more transparent in their effort to discriminate. Legislation being considered in Texas would strip the salaries and pensions of clerks who issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples — even if the Supreme Court strikes down Texas’ marriage ban later this year. In total, there are nearly 100 bills designed to enshrine discrimination in state law….

“America’s business community recognized a long time ago that discrimination, in all its forms, is bad for business. At Apple, we are in business to empower and enrich our customers’ lives. We strive to do business in a way that is just and fair. That’s why, on behalf of Apple, I’m standing up to oppose this new wave of legislation — wherever it emerges. I’m writing in the hopes that many more will join this movement….

“This isn’t a political issue. It isn’t a religious issue. This is about how we treat each other as human beings. Opposing discrimination takes courage. With the lives and dignity of so many people at stake, it’s time for all of us to be courageous.”

Andy Borowitz, the humorist who writes daily at the Néw Yorker, put it another way:

“INDIANAPOLIS (The Borowitz Report)—In a history-making decision, Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana has signed into law a bill that officially recognizes stupidity as a religion.

“Pence said that he hoped the law would protect millions of state residents “who, like me, have been practicing this religion passionately for years.”

“The bill would grant politicians like Pence the right to observe their faith freely, even if their practice of stupidity costs the state billions of dollars.”

MORE from Borowitz: Pence Stunned to Learn How Many People Have Gay Friends

Todd Kaminsky, a Democratic Assemblyman from Long Island, stated his unequivocal opposition to Governor Cuomo’s tax credit proposal–a thinly veiled voucher that will benefit children who attend religious schools. However, the election is over, and now Assemblymember Kaminsky thinks that vouchers are a swell idea.

Maybe he thought that local parents are so busy fighting high-stakes testing that they wouldn’t notice that he wants to take money from their schools and send it to yeshivas, parochial schools, and madrasahs.

During the campaign, he was a vocal opponent of vouchers and received the endorsement of the teachers’ union. He said:

““It’s something that’s not going to happen,” Kaminsky said at the time. “Last year, it did not come up for a vote in the Assembly. I don’t know if it will again, but I can tell you it’s not something I favor.”

Now the election is over and the fickle Mr. Kaminsky says, “there’s a difference between campaigning and governing….”

“Nassau County’s Five Towns area, which Kaminsky represents, has a strong and growing Orthodox Jewish community. During our conversation, the assemblyman noted the tendency of Orthodox families to have many children, which puts a strain on their education budgets.”

The Sun-Sentinel published an editorial calling on Florida’s courts to review the state’s rapidly growing voucher program, which now enrolls 69,000 students. Despite the fact that the state constitution bans spending public funds on religious schools, either “directly or indirectly,” most of the state’s voucher students attend religious schools. In 2012, the voters of Florida defeated a constitutional amendment that would have deleted the language banning the funding of religious schools. The vote was not close: the proposal failed by a margin of 58-42.

 

The voucher program started in 2002-03 with a limit of $50 million, targeting poor students. This year, the limit on the voucher program is $358 million. With a 25% increase allowed every year, the program may expend $904 million by 2018-19. It is no longer limited to poor students, but is available to families near the state’s median income of $62,000 for a family of four.

 

So how in the world is it legal or constitutional to pay for students to attend religious schools in a state explicitly prohibits expending public money for religious schools?

 

The editorial says:

 

The lawsuit rests on two points. The Florida Constitution bans the spending of public money “directly or indirectly” on religious schools. Diversion of corporate taxes owed to the state through a nonprofit called Step Up for Students and given to parents as vouchers, the plaintiffs argue, does not get around the constitutional ban.

 

Also, the Constitution requires that the state provide a “uniform” system of public schools. Florida Education Association Vice President Joanne McCall calls the voucher program a “parallel” system.” Voucher schools don’t have to give the FCAT or any of the other punitive tests that have so angered parents across the state. Voucher schools must give only a national achievement test.

 

John Kirtley, chairman of “Step Up for Students,” which is authorized to administer the voucher program, actively lobbies for voucher expansion (Step Up for Students receives many millions from the legislature for its role). And its leaders in turn give money to legislators to protect and expand the program.

 

The Sun-Sentinel writes:

 

Kirtley and his wife gave roughly $524,000 in the last election cycle, almost all of it to Republicans. Kirtley also is chairman of the Florida Federation for Children, which successfully targeted voucher critics with roughly $1.3 million in campaign contributions.

 

Voucher supporters portray critics as hostile to school choice for minorities. Whatever compelling anecdotes supporters use, however, there is no compelling evidence the program is succeeding. Example: If minorities are benefiting, why do black students score 20 points lower than white students on those tests?

 

No state has a bigger voucher system. Last year, Florida spent $286 million on just 2.7 percent of all students. Iowa spent $13.5 million on 2.6 percent of its students.

 

Florida is on the way to spending $1 billion on a program with questionable accountability that could be the start of an attempt to privatize public education.

 

Legal review of the voucher program is long overdue.

Containing his discussion of the Founders’ rationale for separating church and state, Frank Brealin writes:

“There was a second reason why the Founders feared that bringing religion into politics would have a divisive effect on our young nation — the rise of political and religious opportunists, who would inflame political issues to further themselves. Religion would become both a theatrical performance and a political tool as charlatans hypocritically showboated their piety to manipulate the crowd for political gain.

“Religious hypocrites would disguise their lack of convictions by putting their finger in their mouth, holding it high in the air to determine which way the political wind was blowing, and telling their audience what it wanted to hear. These individuals well understood the art of inciting “enthusiasm” or hysteria toward some plan of action and labeling it “the Will of God.”

“The Founders would have blanched at a government official returning to constituents and pandering to their religious prejudices to gain a following or court popularity. Not that an official couldn’t take part in a religious service, but only as a private citizen and not as a member of government, lest people think that he were lending the power and prestige of his office to their church or religion….

“As experienced men of the world, the Founding Fathers also knew how some politicians or government agencies might use religion on an impressionable audience to seek power, votes, or advancement. Some of the Founders were also highly educated, even erudite, men, especially Thomas Jefferson, whose library contained a Who’s Who of great authors, one of whom was the French playwright Moliere, and one of whose plays was Tartuffe, the incarnation of religious hypocrisy.

“It is both an uproarious romp into the icy regions of a terrible inner emptiness devoid of conviction, as well as a manual for observing the bobbings and weavings of unctuous sanctimony raised to high art.

“In that great patrician school of Parisian sophistication, it was thought that the only way to effect moral reform was not by sermons, but by being laughed at, since few can survive the acid of ridicule. Many don’t mind being thought a scoundrel, but no one a fool! Castigat ridendo mores (“Comedy corrects manners”) was the essence of Moliere’s art that skewered human folly in its many guises.”

Frank Breslin, retired teacher of history and languages, explains here why the Founders of our nation insisted on separation of church and state.

He begins:

“We have a long tradition in America of the Separation of Church and State that prohibits government’s promotion of religion, on the one hand, and interference with its free exercise, on the other. In their refusal to establish a state church or to favor one religion over another, the Founding Fathers did not think that religion was bad, but that there was something amiss in human nature, a certain tendency, a will to power, a lust for domination, that always bore watching.

“It was a virus that lay dormant until its host came to power, whereupon that person or group of persons became suddenly rabid with a mania that sought to punish or persecute everyone not of their fold or persuasion. Paradoxically, the guise under which this malady manifested itself, as the history of Europe made only too plain, was that of religion.

“The Founders thought that religion, something good in itself, could be used for good or bad ends, and, unless preventive measures were taken, it could induce in the susceptible a form of madness so malignant and destructive as to destroy the very essence of religion itself. By persecuting whoever refused to accept their religion or whose lives were deemed as insufficiently righteous, those now in power imposed a religious tyranny so suffocating in its totalitarian grip, scope, and detail that one immediately thinks of barbed wire and concentration camps.

“”Nothing was ever made straight with the crooked timber of humanity,” was Immanuel Kant’s take on such would-be utopians in their spiritual Gulags. Even something as pure and noble as religious feeling, given the weak human vessels in which it was housed, could become tragically twisted, bringing into the world unspeakable horrors.”

A Satanist group asked permission from the Orange County school board in Florida to distribute coloring books in the public schools. The cartoon books would show children performing Satanic rituals and drawing pentagrams. Up until now, the school board had allowed Christian groups to distribute Bibles in school and gave atheists to distribute their materials. Now the Orange County school board may ban the distribution of any religious materials in the schools. This seemed to be a settled principle in our schools since school prayer was banned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1962. But with the recent resurgence of vouchers, most of which are used in religious schools, the question of separation of church and state has become relevant again.

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