I was sitting at my desk Wednesday when the news alert came across my screen. The New York Times was reporting on the most recent decisions being handed down the Supreme Court.
I will comment on the truly offensive decision in Little Sisters of the Poor tomorrow. Today, I want to address the decision allowing religious schools to discriminate in employment.
Here’s the lede:
The Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that federal employment discrimination laws do not apply to teachers whose duties include instruction in religion at schools run by churches.
The vote was 7 to 2, with Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor in dissent.
The court has been active in considering the relationship between church and state, generally siding with religious groups. It has ruled in recent years that a state must let a church participate in a government aid program, that a war memorial in the shape of a cross could remain on public property and that town boards may start their meetings with sectarian prayers. Last week, it said state programs that provide scholarships to students in private schools may not exclude religious schools.
The new cases considered another aspect of the church-and-state divide — what role the government can play in regulating religious institutions.
I have my reservations about several of these cases–not to mention my suspicions about the religious and ideological perspectives of the more conservative Justices–but I actually don’t disagree with this one.
What I do disagree with–strongly–is those “state programs that provide scholarships to students in private schools.”
I have written before about voucher programs. Not only have I blogged about them, but I’ve written academic articles explaining the multiple reasons these programs were ill-conceived to begin with, and pointing out that–in addition to the substantial harms they have caused– they have failed to deliver the benefits they promised (they now have been functioning long enough to permit assessment).
How wasteful/counterproductive is our state’s largesse to private (mostly religious) schools? Let me count the ways: the promised improvement in student achievement did not materialize; badly-needed funds are being diverted from the public schools that most Hoosier children still attend; taxpayers are subsidizing discrimination (schools getting millions of dollars are discharging teachers and counselors for the “sin” of being in same-sex marriages); and there are no requirements that recipients of vouchers teach civics.
In addition to all that, lack of oversight has facilitated a massive rip-off of Hoosier taxpayers. Doug Masson wrote a scathing summary of that problem last year after Chalkbeat reported on fraudulently inflated enrollment numbers at Indiana’s then-virtual schools.
Doug also succinctly summed up the actual motives of voucher supporters. The real impetus for voucher programs wasn’t the purported one: to allow poor children to escape failing schools. It was–and remains–threefold: to weaken teacher’s unions, subsidize religious institutions, and redirect public education money to cronies.
Also, a reminder: vouchers do not improve educational outcomes. I get so worked up about this because the traditional public school is an important part of what ties a community together — part of what turns a collection of individuals into a community. And community feels a little tough to come by these days. We shouldn’t be actively eroding it.
In Indiana, far from excluding religious schools from the nation’s largest voucher program, well over 90% of the schools receiving vouchers paid for by our tax dollars are religious. Some of those schools allow religious dogma to influence what they teach– creationism rather than science, for example– and a number discriminate against teachers and students on the basis of their theologies.
So here’s where I agree with the Court: if your church or mosque or synagogue wants to ensure the “purity” of your doctrine, fine. The Free Exercise Clause–as I read it, and as the Court has now read it–says okay. You don’t have to hire or retain employees who violate your religious tenets.
But as I read the Establishment Clause, your religious institution doesn’t get to do those things with my tax dollars.
So the Catholic Archdiocese gets to exclude trans kids from Catholic schools, and fire excellent teachers and counselors for the “sin” of same-sex marriage. Fine–but not with my tax dollars.
The case that was wrongly decided was Zelman versus Simmons-Harris. In that intellectually dishonest 2002 ruling, the Court pretended that the tax dollars going to vouchers were really being paid to parents, who would then exercise “independent choice.” That has never been the case.
There is now a substantial body of research confirming that vouchers are bleeding resources from our public schools (without improving student performance), eroding civic identity, benefitting religions in violation of the Establishment Clause, and– as a bonus– crippling teacher’s unions.
I’m all for letting churches and religious schools practice what they preach. However, I am adamantly opposed to having taxpayers foot the bill.