Is Colorado becoming the playground for chipping away at the U.S. Constitution? With Colorado Springs the hotbed for religious fundamentalism, more correctly Dominionism, Colorado would seem a ripe candidate. After all, Colorado Springs is the home of James Dobson’s Focus on the Family and New Life Church whose former pastor was Ted Haggard.
The Douglas County School District (DougCo) is earnestly considering a voucher program. Is it a coincidence Colorado Springs attorney Eric Hall helped create the draft policy. I doubt it. To get the results you want, you have to pick the “right” people to make it happen. An Internet search reveals that Hall has:
• represented a religious college in litigation to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals
• represented a Baptist church in First Amendment litigation to Colorado Court of Appeals
• briefed and argued a religious liberty case to Colorado Supreme Court, and
• serves as general counsel to charter schools throughout Colorado
Hall says that Douglas County may be the only school district in the country that has developed its own voucher rule. Couple Hall’s appearances in court on schools and religion with his position a counsel for charter schools and the motive for the DougCo program is vividly apparent.
According to the Denver Post, “School board members believe students need more choices and convened a committee in June to examine all options that could be available for students, including home schooling, online classes and charter schools.” Although charter schools have drawn the most attention, it should not go unnoticed that this program also includes homeschooling. Parents who choose homeschooling do so primarily to isolate their children from curricula with which they disagree.
Charice Russell, who headed the voucher subcommittee, insists that charter schools are necessary “to provide educational choice and improve competition.” Yet multiple studies show that vouchers neither improve educational outcomes for students nor does so-called competition improve public schools.
Beyond the evidence that charter schools fail to substantiate their proponents assertions, American United for the Separation of Church and State (AU) has registered their concerns with the Douglas County school board on the religious school component of this proposed Option Certificate Program.
The program does not prohibit students currently attending private schools from obtaining a voucher. Obviously, parents of these students are likely to apply for these vouchers to reduce their existing costs for religious school tuition. Thousands of these students will be added to the educational costs of the district as well as to the costs for the State of Colorado. AU points out that this is “not free money” as it comes from the State’s budget for per pupil spending.
AU reports that all Douglas County private schools for students above the first grade are Christian schools, which means there are no secular alternatives.
In its letter to the DougCo school board dated November, 16, 2010, AU describes the educational approach of religious schools that would make it impossible to segregate the use of taxpayer funds from religious purposes.
“Most religious schools are part of the ministry of the sponsoring church. Because religious indoctrination is an important part of these ministries, the schools integrate religion throughout their curriculum and require all students to receive religious instruction and attend religious services. Thus, there would be no way to prevent the publicly funded vouchers from paying for these institutions’ religious activities and education. The vouchers would be unrestricted in their use and would pay for all aspects of a religious education, including worship, proselytization, and religious items such as Bibles.”
Therefore, AU described the proposed program as “constitutionally suspect” and cites Zelman v Simmons-Harris ruling against vouchers that provide an impermissible “financial incentive” that “skews” vouchers “toward religious schools.”
Articles in the Denver Post indicate that there is a significant majority on the school board who is determined to have the taxpayer pay for religious education and who believe that Hall’s background protects them from losing in court. They recognize that there will be a court challenge should they institute this program. Board member Craig Richardson seems to believe that if the district starts small, the matter may actually slip in under the legal radar, or at least cost less to defend.
As the letter from Americans United indicates, the actions of Douglas County School District are, indeed, on the radar. DougCo would do well to scrap this program now before the matter ends up in court – unless that’s what it wants. Perhaps they are counting on the U.S. Supreme Court to create yet another coup by additional rewriting of the Constitution’s First Amendment.