School district maneuvers to avoid First Amendment lawsuit

The Douglas County School District has added a new wrinkle to the proposed voucher plan. They now plan to expand eligible private schools to as far as ten miles outside county boundaries. Why would they propose such an unorthodox provision? The answer to that question can be found in the district’s concern over being sued for providing taxpayer dollars to religious schools.

The Douglas County School District has an unusual uniformity in its private schools. Thirteen of the 14 schools within the district are all religious schools. It’s mighty darn hard to argue in court that there is no motivation or intent to support religion when the only voucher choices are faith-based institutions.

The new boundaries substantially increase the number of eligible schools and allow the district to argue that there is no bias, no promotion of religion. These expanded boundaries increase the number of eligible schools from 14 to about 105, changing the percentage of religious schools from nearly 100% to about half.

The district is also hoping to protect itself in court by having a provision for students to opt-out of religious instruction. That sounds reasonable on the surface. However, most Christian schools do not confine themselves to biblical instruction during a confined course of instruction, but instead infuse the entire curricula with their religious positions.

Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, which devotes itself to preserving the Constitutional prohibition in the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, has already communicated its serious concerns about the avenue that the Douglas County School District is pursuing. On November 16, 2010, American United sent the district a four-page letter outlining its opposition to the district’s voucher plan. The district would be well-advised to scrap the plan now and spare itself a costly and protracted court battle that in all likelihood it cannot win.

In its letter to the Douglas County school board dated November, 16, 2010, Americans United 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.”

As an alternative to prevent this or any other voucher plan, State Senator Evie Hudak, who is vice chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, may seek an amendment to bar the use of state funds for vouchers in the school-finance bill.

Those who are elected to school boards have a responsibility from a number of perspectives to provide for superior public education of the students it serves. It is unacceptable, indeed reprehensible, to use those positions to advance religious instruction or pursue privatization of education whether by voucher, by charter schools or by facilitating home schooling.

Parents who object to or are dissatisfied with public education already have the option to chose alternative schools. However, they are not entitled to public funds for those purposes. Those dollars are a public pact for public education amongst generations past and present, with or without school-age children, for the betterment of our civil and secular society. There has never been, nor should there ever be, a personal or individual entitlement to any of these funds.

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