Taxes and Religion

Last week, the Indianapolis Star did something called “journalism.” (These episodes have become sufficiently rare that we should applaud loudly when they occur. I’m clapping.)

Snark aside, the Star followed the money, in this case, our tax dollars, which are flowing ever more generously to Indiana’s parochial schools. And as the introductory paragraphs made clear, these are schools that take both their religious identity and religious instruction seriously.

At Colonial Christian, an Indianapolis school on the northeast side that receives public funds through Indiana’s private school voucher program, students are warned they can be kicked out of school for “promoting a homosexual lifestyle or alternative gender identity.”

At even more voucher-accepting schools, families are required to sign statements of faith as a condition of enrollment, affirming that they hold the same religious beliefs and values as the school.

Theology classes are required for four years at Bishop Chatard High School, as are hours performing service and outreach. And some schools, including Bethesda Christian in Brownsburg, require a recommendation by a pastor.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with having religiously-based private education available to parents who want their children educated in such environments. Whether that education should be paid for with tax dollars, however, is a different question.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled several years ago that voucher programs could  pass constitutional muster, despite the Establishment Clause, because the voucher (theoretically) was issued to the parents, and those parents could (again, theoretically) choose either a secular or religious school.

When Indiana’s Supreme Court was faced with specific language in the state constitution that seemed to foreclose the federal evasion, Indiana’s Court nevertheless opted to follow the same “logic.” (So much for “originalism” and “textual” analysis, which–had either of those purported judicial approaches actually been applied–would have required a different outcome.)

The Star’s article on religious schools’ participation in the state’s voucher program was the fourth in a series on Indiana’s voucher program, a program that was “grown” by former Governor Pence to be the largest in the country. Pence–like Betsy DeVos– was clear about his intent to privilege religious education, and neither of them seems troubled by the constant stream of research showing that children using vouchers do more poorly in English and math than children from similar backgrounds who attend public schools.

In Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the 5-to-4 Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of vouchers, the majority indulged in an abstract–and intellectually dishonest– exercise: the pretense that the voucher went to the parents (it is my understanding that, while the parents choose the ultimate recipient, they never touch the money), and –far more consequently–that the parents are free to choose from among religious or secular private schools. The “facts on the ground” are otherwise; almost all of the nonpublic schools accepting vouchers are religious, and those that are not tend to be geared to special populations: children with disabilities or behavioral issues or the like.

Let’s be honest, at least. Vouchers are support for religious education, and the quotations from parents in the Star article underscore the reality that most parents opting for vouchers do so because they want to send their children to a religious school.

So–back to my original question: why should taxpayers who believe in science and the importance of science education pay for children to attend schools that teach creationism (one of the administrators interviewed insisted that opposition to the “theory” of evolution was essential to his school’s approach)? Why should taxes paid by LGBTQ citizens and their allies be used to send children to schools that proselytize against “homosexual lifestyles”? Why should tax dollars be diverted from a public school system that serves all children and sent to schools that are unaccountable to those taxpayers and that research tells us are not providing an equivalent education?

I remain convinced that the Court in Zelman got it wrong–on both the law and the facts. But even if vouchers are constitutionally acceptable, they fail any reasonable test for what constitutes good public policy. If Americans want to promote alternative educational approaches and parental choice, there are ways to do that within the public system; charter schools, for example, are still public schools, with (among other things) an obligation to teach science and abide by the Bill of Rights.

The Star has illustrated what many educators already know: Indiana’s voucher program is an effort to circumvent the Establishment Clause’s prohibition on government funding for religion.

Educational outcomes are incidental.


  1. Educational outcomes are not incidental. They are the purpose – to raise a generation of Christian zealots who don’t believe in science, including global warming and evolution, or equality for people who are not straight white members of the same sect. The inability to think, to reason, to evaluate, rather than accept the rule as handed down, whether from “God,” the pastor, the teacher, or the politician, is absolutely key.

  2. My question is for Sheila or any other attorneys on this blog –

    Just because the Supreme court previously ruled in favor of public tax dollars supporting religious schools, is there any reason why a new lawsuit cannot be filed again? Even though I am surrounded by extreme conservatives, I have not heard anyone in favor of the financial damage to our public schools that is a result of the voucher system.

  3. Nancy; regarding additional law suits, during the 1980’s, Indiana formed a commission or panel to rule out “frivolous” law suits because courts were required to accept all suits legally filed and many were too ridiculous to waste the court’s time over. Is this still in effect?

    I worked in the Marion County Municipal Court Probation Department at the time and we were aware of some of these law suits filed through Indiana prisons. An ice cream manufacturer donated fudge ripple ice cream, with a low amount of fudge ripple, to a nearby prison. One prisoner files a law suit due to the small amount of fudge ripple. Another prisoner was diagnosed with arthritis in his spine; for some reason the prison doctor told him the best treatment was to soak his back in hot water. The prisoner filed a law suit against DOC when they refused to install a jaccuzzi in his cell. Both cases were heard.

    In this Republican state; what are the odds that another law suit against Mitch Daniels’ and Mike Pence’s escalating voucher system using public education tax dollars – with Betsy DeVos at the federal level – being considered “frivolous”?

  4. Right on, Sheila! I am strongly opposed to my tax dollars being used to inculcate values and religious beliefs (e.g., condemning persons who are gay or denying science) that I do not share. This nation was founded on the principle that church and state should be kept separate. Many of the original settlers came here from Europe because they sought to escape religious persecution. This is one of the primary reasons fights over Supreme Court nominees are so consequential.

  5. It is only in the country’s best interest that our children be well educated. It is in the conservatives’ best interest for our children to be uneducated and unquestioning. Conservatives have shown over and over that they don’t care for honest and open dialogue.

    Today, I am choking on the words of Republican Senators who spent yesterday opining on the hubris of Democrats who want to stop the Gorsuch nomination. It seems that it is Democrats’ constitutional duty to do whatever the Republicans want. An educated populace would see through them.

  6. Private religious schools do not teach students to think theologically. Good theology rules out the garbage factors. Private religious school indoctrinate, not educate. They are virtually cult oriented. Biblical interpretation is non existent. They pick and choose what they want,focusing on “knowing the Lord,” or “being saved!” Garbage in, garbage out!

  7. Sheila, your column makes far to much sense. Such rational reasoning should and must be banned from schools and the internet as it may well cause people to begin to think logically. God only knows what would result from that!

  8. The idea that the voucher program is called “Choice” is ludicrous. Visit the Indiana Department of Education’s website or do research and you will find a plethora of private religious schools compared to private non-denominational schools.

    In reality, no choice exists. The ratio based on my review found that about 85% of private schools are religiously affiliated. That means for many there is no choice other than a religious school. In rural areas, a choice would be pretty much non-existent.

    The Indiana Constitution’s Bill of Rights is clear: Article I, Section 6 reads:

    “No money shall be drawn from the treasury, for the benefit of any religious or theological institution.”

    The Court incorrectly analyzed “benefit” (my opinion of course). The “benefit” can be indirect as well as direct. The parents are only a conduit through which the funds flow to the private school to its benefit.

    The voucher program is not only an attack on public education but also an attack on public education in the larger cities.

  9. The way you made your argument, Sheila, reminded me of Gorsuch and Hobby Lobby, et al. What is the difference between all taxpayers paying even for schools that deny civil and/or human rights to students and all taxpayers (including Hobby Lobby) paying for employes to have woman empowerment?

  10. If the republicants like pence/mitch/mitch2.0 really believed in vouchers they would allow the families to use the voucher at any school, public or private. But they do not want too many minority children invading the public schools their children attend. Remember, the parents do not choose the school, the school chooses the parents.

  11. Jim Stovall; thank you for using the term “indoctrinate” which is now used to replace “brain-washing” terminology of years gone by.

  12. That Faith is personal shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. It’s like sexuality in that regard. Exposure to light is a personal choice and all choices are nobody’s choice but the holder.

    I know people who get a great deal from their Faith and I respect though don’t share that. I know people with no discernible faith and I respect that too though don’t share that either.

    Setting all of that aside though to me the logic behind separation of church and state is clear and compelling. There’s simply no way to mix what Faith is with what governance needs to be. Every time it’s been tried it has ultimately failed.

    What I experienced growing up was about as big an educational compromise to that as seems tolerable to me. Catholic kids were allowed one hour out of school each week to go to church school at their churches. Why that came from the school week compared to the weekend confused me but it was what it was.

    As a taxpayer I am perfectly fine in investing my money in the country’s future through education. People who want to invest their time in exposing their children to their Faith are also perfectly fine with me. There is no reason though for church at the expense of education. Separation is required by law and common sense and experience.

  13. The zealots have cracked the foundation of democracy in many states, led by Indiana and a few others. Their elected representatives are too happy to create legislation that supports the transfer of tax revenue to church-operated schools and devolving education by minimizing science in favor of theology. And there is little that can be done to slow or stop it – the current IN legislative session is a great example of their over-reach and the freedom of the state to own and control every aspect of everyone’s life. It’s disgusting and scary

  14. Could a lawsuit be filed by a student who is denied entrance to a religious school, or ousted, due to their alternative religious or secular leanings? Seems to me that is a case of discrimination and in direct violation of the Constitution.

    As a taxpayer, I see this as benefiting a religious entity without my consent.

  15. I went to elementary schools and high schools that were attended by protestants, Catholics, Jews, agnostics and atheists and never once felt intimidated by any of the kids, their parents or their lawyers.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that nobody ever tells me anything.

  16. OK, here is my take. These Religious Voucher Schools that take State or Federal taxes are engaged in Segregation. Brown vs the Board of Education tossed out the so-called separate but equal charade by race.

    These Religious Voucher Schools clearly are allowed to discriminate based upon Religion. This hits the wall of our First Amendment to the US Constitution: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The Religious Schools are being supported by tax dollars with the goal of establishing their own form of religion. Second, the Religious Schools would seem to have the power to forbid the free exercise of a religious view that clashes with the School’s Religious Doctrine.

    The convoluted, twisted reasoning is the School Tax Dollars belong to the parents, the tax dollars are then laundered through the parents choice of schools. I doubt if the parent ever receives a check made out personally to them.

    If you took this irrational argument to it’s conclusion, I could with hold my tax dollars for an F-18, and choose to fund the building a bridge in Oregon, Illinois or Indiana.

    It is obvious to me at least the end goal or out come was to fund out of tax dollars Religious Schools. Any means to achieve this goal no matter how legally twisted would be approved.

  17. Barbara @ 10:19. That is exactly my thought, i.e., discrimination based upon religion is clearly anathema to our Constitution when public tax dollars are in use, no matter what legal dance steps they used to funnel the tax dollars into a religious school.

  18. Zelman was wrongly decided and the follow the leader Indiana Supreme Court decision is in clear contravention of Indiana’s state constitution, but the good news is that the Dred Scott and Plessey decisions were wrong but ultimately reversed and if any of us live long enough to see it, perhaps Zelman will be reversed as well. My wife, a staunch Lutheran and professor with a doctorate in education, often said that if we lived next door to a Lutheran school, she would send the kids to public schools. She fully understood the distinction between one’s secular duties and one’s religious duties based on a clear view of separation of church and state. I agreed with her. Religious schools are fine, but let those who use them pay for them without resort to the use of taxpayers’ funding, and while research has shown that their educational outcomes are worse, that’s a price we must all pay for only one of several outcomes due to poor choices. See drugs, crime etc. There is a basic disconnect here, i.e., we talk proudly of the separation of church and state but don’t really follow that philosophy when it comes to funding. Aristotle would not be amused.

  19. Just a few quick thoughts:
    1. Public school students have certain due process rights, developed over the years by statute and case law. Many of those rights involved freedom of speech and rights associated with suspension and expulsion. Students who attend private schools do not have those rights, no matter who writes the check.
    2. When this program started, 92% of the non-public schools were churchmaffiliated or sponsored. Of course them”reformers” knew this was indirect aid to churches.
    3. Many of the religious institutions accepting vouchers rail against “government interference.” However, they are fine with accepting government money. In other words, they “want the king’s purse, but they do not want the king.” I’m not sure they can have it both ways.
    4. The stunning lack of accountability measures is really interesting since this void has occurred during the period of time the GOP has absolute control of all houses of state government. Do these folks run their businesses this way? I doubt it. We now know that vouchers and charter schools have little positive influence on student performance. But we do know those programs ave increasingly segregated and stratified our schools and our society.
    5. We know that these programs have created a political force of parents who, having just profited from the state support of their kids’ private school educations, will vote as a block to punish any candidate running against those programs.

    In short, these programs are wrong, but they are here to stay. Welcome to Indiana.

  20. Maryjo Matheny – so health insurance that covers one’s actual health needs is “woman empowerment?”

  21. Off the subject but…just watched a news release on MSNBC from Chelsea and Hillary that Hillary WILL run again in 2020. Have they learned nothing from her two presidential losses and will the Democratic party make the mistake of running her again? She has been in hiding since November 9th of last year; I’m sorry but, the Democratic party is going to have to do better than forcing Hillary on us a third time to get any of my Social Security checks.

  22. Louie: You stated precisely what I tried unsuccessfully to say a few days ago. Thank you. I agree w you that vouchers should open the state to anyone being able to object to paying taxes for any purpose they disagree with. And I suggest that a large group of taxpayers pool some funds and file suit to fight this absurd practice.

  23. My daddy was a preacher and said churches should be taxed. Plenty of public schools brainwash students about patriotism and other issues I gripe about. Our grandson was knew about Hiroshima but not our destruction of Iraq etc. He was horrified. Whatever is taught where kids go, parents need to supplement it and not leave it up to teachers.

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