Archives for category: Religion

Ed Johnson, a Georgian who puts a high value on intelligence and thoughtful decision making, writes about the conflict among some of his fellow Georgians. Should they listen to God or science? Johnson doesn’t think that one has to choose. God is not in opposition to science. God and science walk together. God wants people to learn about COVID-19 and take care of themselves.

Will they listen?

Did you know that the Trump Cabinet has its own Bible teacher?

His name is Ralph Drollinger, and he is bigoted and hard of hearts.

He wrote recently that the COVID-19 pandemic is an expression of God’s wrath.

Why is a God angry? Gays, environmentalists, and other groups that Drollinger doesn’t like.

He obviously thinks he knows what God thinks.

And he thinks he is God’s spokesman on earth.

This is a combination of bigotry and stupidity.

Stephen Dyer of Innovation Ohio is a former legislator and is currently the most astute analyst of the legislature’s efforts to undermine public education.

In this post, he describes the legislature’s current approach to vouchers.

He writes:

Yesterday, Ohio’s legislature passed their COVID-19 emergency package. And while there were some much needed and positive things in it (no standardized tests this year, no report cards), the bill also settled the contentious debate over what to do with next year’s EdChoice perofrmance-based voucher program.

A bit of background. Next year, due to legislative changes, 1,227 school buildings would have been labeled by the state as “failing”. Families with students in those buildings could therefore receive publicly subsidized private school tuition vouchers to leave these schools. The problem for districts is the way this program is funded, the state removes state revenue meant for the students in the districts and instead provides a private tuition subsidy — an amount that on average is abot $1,300 more per pupil than the student would have received from the state if he or she had remained in the school district. This forces many districts to use local revenue to make up the difference.

Also, it is obvious that more than 1/3 of Ohio school buildings are not “failing” students, as the current 1,227 building calculation would conclude. And legislators on all sides of the aisle agreed that the state report card that made this determination is fatally flawed.

However, families were gearing up by Feb. 1 to request vouchers for next school year based on the expanded school building list. The legislature put off that deadline to April 1 and included $10 million in state funding to help offset the cost of increased vouchers. They were hoping to hash out a plan to address this issue before that date.

Then COVID-19 hit and everything changed.

The solution included in yesterday’s bill was essentially freezing the number of buildings at this year’s 500+ buildings, and limiting new vouchers to siblings of current recipients and incoming kindergarten students, as well as any 8th graders who want to take the voucher in high school.

But it’s all based on this current school year’s building list — which is still about double the amount of the 2018-2019 school year, but is far fewer than the 1,227 it could have been.

This solution also did not include the $10 million state infusion to help districts cope with the increase in vouchers.

So the immediate question became: Will this “freeze” really be a cost-neutral freeze on the program? Or do we still need an infusion of state cash to offset new vouchers?

Looking at the data, it appears we could be looking at an increase in voucher funding next year, but it could also be cost neutral. It all depends on how the math works out.

According to the latest state funding printouts, there are currently 3,264 kindergarten voucher students. In addition, there are an average of 2,324 voucher students in 12th grade this year.

The kindergarten students cost $4,650 per year. The 2,324 12th graders cost $6,000 a year.

When advocates of vouchers assert that all children should have the “same choices” as rich people, they are lying. The private schools that Trump, Gates, and others of their wealth choose do not charge $6,000 a year. They charge $30,000-$60,000 a year.

Ohio is offering a subsidy to religious schools, including to children who have never attended a public schools. These schools do not necessarily require that teachers are certified. The education they offer is typically inferior to public education.

Ninety percent of the children of Ohio choose to attend public schools. Their legislators ignore them.

Katherine Stewart is the author of a new book, The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism. This article, which appeared as an opinion piece in the New York Times, is essential reading to understand the Trump-supported effort to eliminate the separation of church and state, to give religious organizations the right to discriminate against those they do not like, and to open government funding to religious groups. The U.S. Supreme Court will rule in a case called Espinoza v. Montana this spring, a crucial case that gives the conservative Court an opportunity to compel public funding of religious schools. It is a curious fact that libertarians like the DeVos family and the Koch family oppose almost every form of government funding (Social Security, Medicare) except for government money for religious schools.

She writes:

Many Americans know by now that when Christian nationalists talk about “religious freedom” they are really asking for the privilege to impose their religion on other people. What Americans may not yet understand is that they are also demanding money from taxpayers to do so.

Long before Donald Trump hitched his political fortunes to the Christian right, previous Republican administrations had primed the pumps that would send public money flowing toward religious organizations.

In 2002, the George W. Bush administration increased the flow of federal money to faith-based organizations providing services on behalf of the government. Mr. Bush himself insisted that these organizations would not be permitted to discriminate. But in fact the new method of faith-based funding invited the risk of discrimination and the erosion of church-state separation.

The Obama administration, responding to these concerns, put in place provisions to ensure that members of the public were not subject to discrimination on the basis of religious belief or unwanted proselytizing. The provisions also required that users of church-sponsored social programs be made aware of nonsectarian options.

The Trump administration is now proposing to eliminate these Obama-era safeguards. And true to form, they did so earlier this year, on the increasingly Orwellian-sounding annual Religious Freedom Day in January.

One purpose of the new proposed regulations is to make sure that organizations receiving taxpayer money are exempt from the kinds of anti-discrimination law by which nonreligious organizations must abide. If that sounds like a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, that’s because it is — or at least it should be.

Under the proposed regulations, faith-based aid organizations that receive public money are free to hire and fire their workers and subcontractors on account of their religion, sexual orientation, or any other behavior or characteristic that the organization finds religiously appealing or objectionable. Aid-providing organizations will no longer have any obligation to let members of the public receiving their services know if there are available nonsectarian options. Organizations that receive their money through vouchers and other forms of indirect aid can now proselytize, require that recipients participate in religious activities or ask that recipients pledge their loyalty to Jesus. And the government itself is no longer required to offer a nonsectarian option for those whose beliefs or conscience make it impossible for them to accept aid on these terms.

“The proposed rules would strip away religious freedom protections from people, often the most vulnerable and marginalized, and even allow faith-based organizations to discriminate in government-funded programs,” Rachel Laser, president and chief executive of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told me. She added that this puts the interests of these organizations “ahead of the needs of the people seeking critical services.”

Why is the Trump administration so determined to tear down the wall of separation between church and state? The long game is clear: because that’s the way you “take back America” and make it a Christian nation.

But the short game is more relevant now. There is a pile of public money on the other side of the wall that separates church and state, and Christian nationalists are determined to grab it (and to hold on to what they have already grabbed).

These kinds of pro-discrimination rules are bound to cause harm. There may be a woman who loses her job at a faith-based service provider because she is “living in sin” with her partner. There may be people seeking counseling services who will forgo the help they need because it is offered only in conservative Christian health care settings and is staffed with Christian-only providers, all of whom claim to be living in conformity with a “Bible lifestyle.”

There will be some minority-religion providers — a Jewish soup kitchen here, a Muslim job-training initiative there — that will defend the new rules and claim to benefit from them. But they will serve, in effect, as strategic cover, lending the appearance of diversity to a movement that ties the idea of America to specific conservative religious and cultural identities.

Legitimizing these forms of discrimination is itself a grotesque violation of whatever it is that we actually mean by religious freedom. But that’s the point, as far as Mr. Trump and his Christian nationalist allies are concerned. The religious rights of the larger American public are collateral damage in a war of conquest aimed squarely at the public coffers.

To grasp the motivation for the Trump administration in promulgating “religious freedom,” it helps to review a little Supreme Court history. In 2017, the Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Mo., brought a case in which the church claimed that it had an equal claim to government grants for purchasing materials to upgrade its playground.

At the time, many commentators raised a concern that the case was really just a device for eliminating Establishment Clause concerns from decisions affecting the public funding of religious institutions and activities. Lawyers from conservative Christian legal organizations, including the Alliance Defending Freedom, argued that refusing to allocate public money to religious institutions amounted to discrimination against religion. This theory, if it takes hold in law, significantly weakens the Establishment Clause. If withholding taxpayer money from religious institutions amounts to discrimination, then the taxpayer has no choice but to fund religion.

Some important things to know about today’s Christian nationalist movement: It doesn’t believe in the First Amendment as we usually understand it and as our founders intended it. It doesn’t believe that the government should make no law respecting an establishment of religion. It also takes a dim view of government assistance — unless the money passes through churches first. Politically connected religious leaders like Ralph Drollinger of Capitol Ministries, whose White House Bible study has been attended by at least 10 current and former members of Mr. Trump’s cabinet, maintains that social welfare programs have no basis in scripture. “The responsibility to meet the needs of the poor lies first with the husband in a marriage, secondly with the family (if the husband is absent), and thirdly with the church,” Mr. Drollinger has written. “Again, nowhere does God command the institutions of government or commerce to fully support those with genuine needs.”

These ideas are shared by David Barton, a historical revisionist who sits on the boards of an array of Christian nationalist legislative and data initiatives, pastoral networks and other influential groups. Mr. Barton has argued that the Bible and God himself oppose progressive income taxes, capital gains taxes and minimum wage laws. “Since sinful man tends to live in bondage, different forms of slavery have replaced the more obvious system of past centuries,” according to an essay posted to Mr. Barton’s WallBuilders website titled “The Bible, Slavery and America’s Founders.” “The state has assumed the role of master for many, providing aid and assistance, and with it more and more control, to those unable to provide for themselves. The only solution to slavery is the liberty of the Gospel.”

While these activists rail against direct government aid to the poor, they are eager to increase the flow of government handouts to churches and religious groups who may then provide the aid themselves, but without adherence to nondiscrimination law. As a further bonus, when the money gets funneled to religious organizations, some of it then can then be pumped back into the right-wing political machine through religious organizations and the policy groups they support, which act as de facto partisan political cells.

In order to understand the game that Christian nationalists are playing, it’s important to remember that the First Amendment has two clauses concerning religion: one that guarantees the freedom to exercise religion and one that prohibits the government from establishing any religion. What the framers understood is that these two come as a pair; they are necessarily connected. We are free to exercise religion precisely because the government refrains from establishing religion.

At present, the Christian nationalist movement has substantial sources of support in the form of access to wealthy donors and robust donor-advised charities. It also has a large base of supporters who make large numbers of small contributions. But leaders of the movement know that their bread will have a lot more butter if it comes from the government. They already receive significant funding indirectly from taxpayers in the form of deductions and exemptions. They are determined to secure these extra funds, and they are immensely fearful of losing them, especially if a pluralistic society decides to do something about the fact that its tax dollars are being used to fund groups that actively promote discrimination against many citizens and support radical political agendas.

In the future, if the Trump administration has its way, the current flow of taxpayer money to religious organizations may well look like the trickle before the flood. Religious nationalists dream of a time when most or all social welfare services pass through the hands of religious entities. They imagine a future in which a young woman seeking advice on reproductive health care will have nowhere to turn but a state-funded, church-operated network of “counseling” centers that will tell her she will go to hell if she doesn’t have the baby.

The discrimination against individuals and the misuse of public money that the Trump administration’s proposed regulations would allow is bad enough. But these are far from the worst consequences of this kind of assault on the separation of church and state. The most profound danger here is to the deep structure of American society and politics.

In 1786, when Thomas Jefferson and James Madison pushed through the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom that Religious Freedom Day commemorates, the issue that motivated them and that brought evangelical Christians at the time over to their side was a detested tax imposed on all Virginians to pay for the church services demanded by the established church. “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical,” Jefferson wrote. “No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever.”

It is ironic, then, that the Trump administration’s religious freedom initiative seeks to fund religious organizations with taxpayer money. But what makes this particularly dangerous is that the same money in many cases goes to churches and religious organizations that are increasingly and aggressively asserting themselves in partisan politics, and that happen to support Mr. Trump. As Jefferson and Madison understood, the destruction of the wall that separates church and state corrupts politics just as surely as it corrupts religion.

Tom Ultican loved Katherine Stewart’s new book, The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism, and he thinks you will too. I have the book but, due to my travels, have not had a chance to read it yet. So I’m grateful for his review.

He begins:

Katherine Stewart’s The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism is a brilliant piece of investigative journalism. It shines a light on significant threats to American pluralism and representative democracy. The religious rights amazing successes now influence every aspect of American life, from the White House to local governments, from schools to hospitals. Stewart documents the origins of “the Russia thing” and the evangelical embrace of Donald Trump. She clarifies that the Christian right is not fighting a culture war; it is a political war waged against the institutions of American democracy and freedom of conscience.

Trump is a Gift from God

Ralph Drollinger: “I started sending him my Bible studies when he was running his campaign and Trump has been writing notes back to me ever since, in a positive sense. He likes loyalty.”

Paula White about Trump: “It is God that raises up a king.”

Franklin Graham on Trump’s election: “God’s had intervened.”

David Barton called Trump: “God’s guy.”

Sarah Huckabee Sanders claimed God: “wanted Trump to become president.”

Ralph Reed stated: “There has never been anyone who has defended us and fought for us who we have loved more than Donald J. Trump.”

Rick Ridings said when he asked God how the nation will learn to change: “The Lord said, ‘It must play, the Trump card.’”

Ed Martin stated: “The Donald Trump administration has been a blessing on America like we’ve never seen.”

These sentiments are expressed by leaders of Christian Nationalism throughout this book. If you don’t recognize some of the names, it is important to understand that they are having a large influence on education, social justice and foreign policy in America and beyond. Stewart brings them out of the shadows and illuminates their roles.

Public Education, Environmentalism and Social Welfare are Evil

Pastor D. James Kennedy asserted that children in Public Schools were being “brainwashed in Godless secularism.” In 2003, the DeVos family’s Christian Reformed Church warned that “not only does there exist a climate of hostility to the Christian Faith, the legitimate and laudable educational goal of multi-culturalism is often used as a cover to introduce pagan and New Age spiritualities such as deification of mother earth (Gaia) and to promote social causes such as environmentalism.” The report also claimed that “government schools” had “become aggressively and increasingly secular in the last forty years.”

In his sermon called “A Godly Education,” Kennedy exclaimed, “The infusion of an atheistic, amoral, evolutionary, socialistic, one-world, anti-American system of education in our public schools, has indeed become such that if it had been done by and enemy, it would be considered an act of war.” After denouncing Horace Mann as “a Unitarian,” Kennedy declared, “The modern, public education system was begun in an effort to deliver children from the Christian religion.”

Environmentalism is termed a “false religion.” Stewart quotes the young pastor who took her to a Christian political event in North Carolina, “It’s ten degrees hotter than normal, and these people don’t believe in climate science.” The conservative Christian Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation declares, “There is no convincing scientific evidence that human contribution to greenhouse gases is causing dangerous global warming.” The Christian Nationalist political organization Culture Impact Center has claimed that environmentalism is a “litany of the Green Dragon” and “one of the greatest threats to society and the church today.”

Many of the roots of Christian Nationalism can be traced to the antebellum period and theological theories supporting slavery. Calvinist philosopher R. J. Rushdoony was an admirer of these preachers and claimed that “some people are by nature slaves and will always be so.” Although some of his writing was uncomfortable for leaders in the nationalist movement, his ideas form a significant amount of the ideology embraced by today’s right wing Christian thinking. He was the first to claim the First Amendment aimed to establish freedom “not from religion, but for religion.”

I posted at 10 AM EST today about an article in the Hechinger Report, written at its request by scholars Bruce Baker and Preston Green, each of whom is an expert in his field (school finance, constitutional law and education). A reader identified with the pro-voucher Reason Institute complained that an earlier Supreme Court decision forbade private schools from practicing racial discrimination, and an editor inserted a note saying so, as if to correct Baker and Green.

Baker and Green objected that the reader was wrong. The Supreme Court case he cited—Runyon v. McCrary-did not expressly forbid racial discrimination by religious schools if based on religious grounds.

The editor at the Hechinger Report read the case in question and removed the erroneous insertion, appending this clarification at the end of the article.

*Clarification: After publication of this article, a reader noted that the Supreme Court ruling Runyon v. McCrary (1976) forbids discrimination by race in private schools. We added a parenthetical editor’s note saying that current federal law does not permit private schools to discriminate on the basis of race. This note was overly broad. The authors explained that Runyon does not expressly address sectarian schools, a subset of private schools. Indeed, the Court specifies that its ruling offers no opportunity to address “private sectarian schools that practice Racial Exclusion on religious grounds.” Although it is unlikely that parochial schools would engage in racial discrimination, Runyon does not specifically address that possibility. This clarification should have been obtained from the authors before the editor’s note was appended.

I am glad the editor made this change. I’m glad she read the case and consulted with the authors. But I’m not in agreement with her expectation that religious schools would be “unlikely” to engage in racial discrimination. It is generally acknowledged that choice policies intensify segregation of all kinds: religious, racial, and socioeconomic (although Reason and CATO and other pro-vouchers advocates don’t agree with the scholarly consensus). Among the more extreme of evangelical schools that are currently funded by states, according to a survey by Rebecca Klein of the Huffington Post, a number openly teach racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry, as well as lies about science and history.

The Hechinger Report invited two eminent scholars to write about how public schools might respond if the Supreme Court rules in favor of the plaintiffs in the Espinoza v. Montana case. In this case, rightwing libertarians seek to eliminate Montana’s constitutional prohibition on spending public money for tuition in religious schools. In effect, they want to eliminate the line separating church and state. The Trump-enhanced Supreme Court has already ruled that it is permissible to discriminate on religious grounds against same-sex couples in a Colorado case where a baker refused to bake a cake for two men. Homophobia is okay if it is based on deep religious convictions.

The Hehinger Report asked Bruce Baker of Rutgers, an expert on school finance, Preston Green III of the University of Connecticut, a constitutional lawyer, to consider the ramifications of this case if the Court favors the plaintiffs.

They wrote the article, then discovered that Corey DeAngelis of the libertarian Reason Foundation and the CATO Foundation (founded by the Koch brothers) objected to their views, basing his objection on an entry in Wikipedia. He insisted that an earlier Supreme Court decision forbade private schools from discriminating on the basis of race. Professor Green said DeAngelis was wrong.

Instead of inviting DeAngelis to write a letter to the editor or post a dissenting comment, which is customary, the Hechinger Report inserted an editor’s note inside the article.

This is the paragraph with the editor’s note responding DeAngelis’ complaint. By the time you read this, the “editor’s note” may have been deleted. I was informed by an editor that the publication had decided to delete it.

Let’s assume that there exist state legislatures that would prefer not to have taxpayer dollars used to support religious schooling. Perhaps they are concerned with supporting schools that might discriminate in admissions or other treatment on the basis of sexual orientation of children or parents, or even race. (Editor’s note: Current Federal law does not permit private schools to discriminate on the basis of race.)

Preston Greene III wrote the following response as a warning to others: The Hechinger Report puts Wikipedia on the same level as scholarship. (DeAngelis received a Ph.D. in education policy from the Walton-funded Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, which holds a single point of view on school choice, and he regularly trolls anyone who disagrees with choice ideology on Twitter).

My own note: Fred Hechinger, for whom the Hechinger Report was named, was born in Germany and came to New York in 1936 at the age of 16. He graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School in New York City and the City College of New York, at that time a free public college. He and his wife Grace were personal friends of mine. He opposed public funding of religious schools. He supported free and universal public schools. This is how the Hechinger Report describes the man whose name it bears: “Fred M. Hechinger was education editor of The New York Times, an author of several books and an advocate for public education. The Hechinger Report continues his efforts to produce and promote high-quality education coverage.”

Preston C. Green III

I am writing this post to alert my fellow professors about a situation I recently encountered after publishing a piece with the Hechinger Institute. This organization approached Bruce Baker and me to write an op-ed explaining the possible consequences of the Espinoza v. Montana State Department of Revenue case. In this case, the Supreme Court is considering whether states can prohibit parochial schools from participating in a tax-credit scholarship program. It is generally expected that the Court will hold that states cannot act in this manner.

In this op-ed, we explained that states might respond to this potential decision by placing curricular restrictions on participating schools or even refusing to fund private education altogether. We even posited that states might respond to the Court’s expected decision by dramatically reducing their investment in charter schools.

We did not get much pushback for these points in the op-ed. However, Corey DeAngelis, adjunct scholar of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom and the Director of School Choice at the Reason Foundation, claimed on Twitter that we were wrong to suggest that parochial school participants in school voucher programs might even consider discrimination on the basis of race. He supported this assertion by citing a Supreme Court case, Runyon v. McCrary. DeAngelis posted a screenshot of the purported holding, which he got from Wikipedia. According to this summation, Runyon held that “[f]ederal law prohibits private schools from discriminating on the basis of race.” On the basis of this “evidence,” DeAngelis demanded that Hechinger correct this alleged error.

I responded on Twitter by posting a screenshot of the pertinent part of the actual case, which included the following statement (italics added):

It is worth noting at the outset some of the questions that these cases do not present. They do not present any question of the right of a private social organization to limit its membership on racial or any other grounds. They do not present any question of the right of a private school to limit its student body to boys, to girls, or to adherents of a particular religious faith, since 42 U.S.C. § 1981 is in no way addressed to such categories of selectivity. They do not even present the application of § 1981 to private sectarian schools that practice Racial Exclusion on religious grounds. Rather, these cases present only two basic questions: whether § 1981 prohibits private, commercially operated, nonsectarian schools from denying admission to prospective students because they are Negroes, and, if so, whether that federal law is constitutional as so applied.

The italicized section clearly established that the Court in Runyon did not address the question of whether § 1981 prohibited sectarian schools from racially discriminating on the basis of religious belief.

DeAngelis insisted that a retraction was in order reposting the Wikipedia screenshot and claiming that parochial schools would never discriminate because they might lose their tax-exempt status. Other people joined in on Twitter claiming that we were fearmongering because no school would ever consider discriminating on the basis of race for religious reasons – the stakes were too high.

Although I would like to believe we are past the time that schools would not overtly try to discriminate on the basis of race, I do not share this rosy view. My parents received part of their education in racially segregated public schools in Virginia. And although I did not attend a racially segregated school, I also experienced several incidents of overt discrimination.

The Hechinger editor asked Bruce Baker and me over email about the Twitter avalanche from DeAngelis and his supporters. I explained that DeAngelis’s understanding of Runyon was incorrect. The Court’s decision expressly did not address the legality of parochial schools claiming racial discrimination on the basis of religious belief. I even cited cases in which parochial schools attempted to exploit this loophole in Runyon (the courts rejected this assertion on the ground that the discrimination was not based on sincere religious belief).

Two days later, our editor emailed Bruce Baker and me again, explaining that her superiors wanted to place a note after the offending sentence to the effect that racial discrimination violated federal law. We responded by explaining that this statement was overly broad. It was true that parochial schools that discriminated on the basis of race ran the risk of losing their tax-exempt status. It was also true that a parochial school that discriminated on the basis of race ran the risk of losing its federal funding (if it received such aid). However, it was false to assert that federal law explicitly prohibited parochial schools from racially discriminating in their admissions. To summarize our position: While it was unlikely that a parochial school would discriminate on the basis of race in its admissions policy, federal law did not explicitly prohibit it.

Our editor then responded by suggesting an editors’ note that federal law made it unlikely for a parochial school to discriminate on the basis of race. I agreed to that parenthetical statement.

To our surprise, the following day, we received an email from the editor telling us that her superiors had overruled her. The overly broad editors’ note was back in. We were also told that there was nothing we could do about it. We have yet to hear any convincing explanation why Hechinger rejected our reasoning regarding this legal issue.

I am disappointed and, frankly, outraged, that Hechinger acted in this manner. When DeAngelis challenged our assertions, we cogently explained why we believed he was wrong. Yet Hechinger did not support the well-reasoned legal opinion of two scholars in the field it had specifically asked to research this issue. Instead, it bowed to online pressure even after we had spent more time providing additional background and case law. Other professors should consider our experience if Hechinger approaches them for an op-ed.

Sarah Vowell is a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times where this article appeared. Proponents of vouchers often claim that the state prohibitions on public funding of religious schools were birthed in anti-Catholic bigotry, based on the Blaine Amendment, which was offered as a Constitutional amendment after the Civil War but failed to be adopted. Many states wrote their own “baby Blaine” amendments to assure that no public money went to religious schools–not just Catholic schools, but religious schools of any kind. The case now before the Supreme Court, Espinoza v. Montana, asserts the claim that refusal to fund religious schools is bigotry towards those schools. Sarah Vowell explains that the Montana constitution was rewritten in 1972. It included a strict prohibition against funding religious schools because the people of Montana can barely afford to pay for the public schools they have. If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Espinoza, it will impoverish the public schools of Montana. That is why the suit is supported by the far-right Institute for Justice and their funders such as the Walton and DeVos families.

 

Scrutinizing the avuncular sphinx Chief Justice John Roberts throughout the impeachment trial of President Trump, I kept wondering whether he will preserve or ransack the legacy of the framers we revere — framers like the Republican Betty Babcock and the Democrat Dorothy Eck. It’s the question on all Americans’ minds: Do Mr. Roberts and his eight co-workers fully appreciate the public-spirited grandeur of the winter of 1971-72, when 100 Montanans, including housewives, ministers, a veterinarian and a beekeeper, gathered at the state capital, Helena, for the constitutional convention, affectionately nicknamed the “Con Con”?

The question haunts the current Supreme Court case Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue. This newspaper has called the dispute over whether state tax credits can apply to donations for scholarships to private religious schools “a proxy battle over school choice.” However, the back story is so clumsily specific to Montana’s small population and immense geography that the case doesn’t entirely translate to states where people outnumber cows.

The novelist Ivan Doig wrote that in the scruffy Montana of yore, “when you met up with someone apt to give you trouble from his knuckles, the automatic evaluation was ‘too much Butte in him.’” When, as the grateful graduate of a Montana public school, I was determining whether I had a duty to stick up for the Con Con framers regarding the Espinoza case, I spotted a sequence in the web address of an article about it in The Atlantic that read “montana-bigoted-laws.” At that moment this Bozeman girl had too much Butte in her. Dorothy Eck wrote no “bigoted” anti-Christian laws — she was a blatant Methodist!

Before it ended up at the Supreme Court, the Espinoza ruckus started with a $150 tax credit. Montanans will make an appellate-level stink about chump change because that’s the only available change. The tiny tax base is basically eight coal miners, a couple of ski lift operators, that family in Belgrade making organic goat cheese and Huey Lewis.

Kendra Espinoza counted on scholarships to help pay for her daughters’ tuition at Stillwater Christian, a private school in Kalispell. No wonder. At up to $8,620 per year, ninth grade is more than $1,000 higher than undergraduate tuition at the University of Montana. What we called a “band room” at Bozeman High, Stillwater considers a “conservatory.”

School choice partisans pounced when Ms. Espinoza and other private-school parents sued to overturn the State Supreme Court’s ruling that the tax credit for scholarship donations violated the “no-aid” clause for sectarian schools in the Montana Constitution. They argued that it was time to erase “antiquated” anti-Catholic laws against public funding for private religious education. The subtle former state senator Matthew Monforton denounced the law as “Jim Crow for Christians.”

It is worth pointing out that the eighth word of the ’72 Constitutionis “God.” In the first draft of the preamble, some wistful Jeffersonians tried to thank the “Spirit of the Creator” for “the quiet beauty of our state.” They were shot down in the Bill of Rights Committee because “not mentioning ‘God’ specifically would be unacceptable” and so they “voted unanimously to retain Him in the Preamble.” The framers included a priest from Great Falls, Mitt Romney’s cousin Miles, the self-proclaimed “first Roman Catholic ever elected to anything in Yellowstone County,” and enough Presbyterians to warrant their own photo op.

While the ’72 Constitution’s no-aid clause looks similar to its predecessor in the 1889 original, the update was motivated by fortifying public schools, not shunning people of faith. Rethinking education was, along with open government and the right to individual dignity, part of the Con Con’s crusade to take a stand that no one dared dream of at statehood: that Montana would be a state in a republic and not an exceedingly wide company town.

“We were known as the state that wore the copper collar, controlled by the Anaconda Company,” Ms. Eck once said. A swashbuckler for the League of Women Voters, she referred to the copper company lording over the “richest hill on earth” and thus the newspapers and politicians. “There were stories of how their lobbyists would sit in the balcony at the legislature and do thumbs up and thumbs down of how people should vote.”

The Con Con delegates, who arranged themselves not by party but alphabetically, were so preoccupied with the public interest that they agreed public funds could be spent only on public agencies. During deliberations on the no-aid clause, the pastor of Helena’s Plymouth Congregational led the charge of “preserving our public school system,” preaching, “that’s what this issue is all about. I don’t think we ought to dilute that in any way.” (Diluting that is the aim of Espinoza.)

Article X, Section 1, of the ’72 Constitution proclaims that it is the duty of the state to “develop the full educational potential of each person.” That is an expensive ideal in a desolate wasteland. Public schools are supposed to be a volume business, but tell that to the Great Plains. The state of Montana has about 60,000 fewer inhabitants than the number of students enrolled in New York City’s public school system. I have volunteered in that epic system, which is to say I have had to excuse myself from a struggling student to go cry in a bathroom, so I sympathize with an urban kid who might eye a parochial school as her best chance.

That school choice logic doesn’t apply to Montana, where the poorest schools often have the smallest class sizes. The Montana Free Press reported that out in Prairie County, “Terry High School’s sophomore class has just five students this school year.” Starting in first grade, my friend Genevieve would ride her horse Croppy to the Malmborg School near Bozeman Pass; one year she and her brother Pete were half the student body.

When USA Today asked Ms. Espinoza if she had any qualms about what her case could mean for public schools, she insisted, “They have plenty of money.”

How I wish that were true. Last year, the public school district in Kalispell announced $1.7 million in budget cuts, Great Falls recently lost almost a hundred teachers, and Billings just announced about $4 million in cuts that mean canceling fifth grade orchestra and band.

A Supreme Court decision on Espinoza is expected in June. If the justices rule against Montana’s voters, tax credits for private school scholarship donations could surge. Revenue that might revive the Billings fifth grade band program could underwrite the fifth grade band at a pricey Kalispell private school.

Kalispell is the seat of Flathead County, which between 2000 and 2015 added more than 15,000 jobs just as rural Choteau County was losing more than 300. Overturning the no-aid clause will shovel more money into the cities (where most of the private schools are) and kick Choteau while it’s down, thereby thwarting the framers’ plan to spare needy districts from taxing “their residents three or four times as much as rich districts to provide less than half as much money per student.”

The public schools the framers conjured ask the taxpayers to splurge on fairness, not privilege, to pull together, not away. That beekeeper, those clergymen and moms chartered a state in a republic where a first grader on horseback is supposed to be as big and important as the mountains. As the Supreme Court justices ponder whether to upend all that over what appears to be a $150 trifle, I’ll pass along this lesson of Montana winters: A collapsed roof starts with a single snowflake.

Sarah Vowell, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of “The Wordy Shipmates” and “Lafayette in the Somewhat United States.”

Peter Greene nails it here, in discussing how Trump and DeVos folded the federal Charter Schools Program into a big, fat block grant that states can spend however they wish. 

For decades, Republicans have been wanting to eliminate social programs by turning them into block grants to the states. Now, as Valerie Strauss reported, charter school advocates are outraged. Brought to the dance and abandoned.

Open the link and see the great image Greene posts to make the point.

I have known for many years that right-wingers went for charters only because they lay the groundwork for vouchers.

I learned that when I worked in rightwing think tanks like the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the Koret Education Program at the Hoover Institution.

The true right-wingers don’t give a hoot about charter schools except as a way to condition the American public to give up on public schools and place their faith in consumerism.

Charters pave the way for vouchers. They turn citizens, invested in public institutions, into consumers, looking out only for their own child.

Now that the Trump administration has a chance to show what it really cares about, it is vouchers (aka “Education Freedom Scholarships” or some other deceptive name).

DeVos wants every American child in a religious school or some other private school.

Not the kind that costs $25,000-50,000 a year.

The kind that costs $4,800 a year.

The kind that scoffs at the common good.

The kind that employs high-school dropouts as teachers (as in Florida), the kind that decides which children are acceptable and which are not allowed. The kind that kicks out students, staff and families who are gay, knowing that Trump’s rightwing Supreme Court will back them up.

The kind that accepts only “our kind.”

The Trump-DeVos show and the return of racism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia as acceptable public policy.

The Orlando Sentinel surveyed Florida’s voucher schools and found that nearly 160 of them openly discriminate against LGBT students, families, and staff. Democratic legislators object and have been meeting with the head of the state’s Step Up for Students, which transfers hundreds of millions of dollars (that would otherwise go to the state as taxes ) to voucher schools. Some major corporations have said they would no longer contribute to the program (in lieu of taxes), which undoubtedly encourages Step Up to talk.

Republican legislators indicate that anti-LGBT policies are not a problem for them.

Such bias is certainly not a problem for Betsy DeVos, whose family foundation has supported anti-gay causes for many years.

And it’s probably okay with the Supreme Court, which ruled that discrimination against a gay couple was acceptable if based on a sincere religious conviction. As you will see if you open the story, these evangelical schools sincerely and passionately detest gay people.

Which other groups is it okay to hate while funded by public dollars?