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Some years ago, I lived in New Hampshire. I vividly remember two things about the state: The rock formation known as the “Old Man of the Mountain” and the great public schools my children attended.
Sadly, the rock formation collapsed in 2003 – and now it looks like the state’s public schools may be headed down the same road. New Hampshire’s legislators seem determined to siphon money away from public schools and into the coffers of private religious institutions.
It’s too late to save the rock, but we can still rescue the schools. Like a lot of states, New Hampshire has a constitution that bans tax support for sectarian enterprises. It also has a law making it easy for taxpayers to challenge unconstitutional forms of government spending. Both are being put to use by the organization I represent, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which has just filed a lawsuit in state court to free taxpayers from being forced to support religion.
New Hampshire has adopted an increasingly popular (but convoluted) tax-credit scheme that works like this: Corporation A makes a large donation to a “scholarship” program. It then receives a tax credit – sometimes equivalent to the amount it donated, sometimes slightly less – from the state. The money is parceled out to parents who want to send their children to private schools and hand the bill to someone else.
If your head is spinning right about now, you’re not alone. I’m always amazed at the shell games some legislators can come up with when they don’t want to follow the clear commands of their governing charters.
And, yes, I put “scholarship” in quotation marks for a reason. That word is a euphemism designed to make what’s going on in New Hampshire – taxpayer-funded religion – sound warm and fuzzy.
It’s neither warm nor fuzzy. Most private schools in America are religious in nature. They’re largely free from government oversight. Most of them teach dogma. Fundamentalist academies, for example, substitute creationism for science and base all instruction on a narrow reading of the Bible. Don’t even get me started on what they teach about LGBT Americans and the rights of women.
Parents have the right to send their children to these schools. They have no right to expect you to pay for it. They have no right to expect you to subsidize a sectarian worldview with which you may vehemently disagree. In short, they have no right to tax you to pay for their religion.
Yet that’s exactly what is happening in New Hampshire and in other states that have adopted tax credit and voucher plans. Private schools that openly admit they exist primarily to spread a certain faith and indoctrinate children in it are receiving tax windfalls. In some cases, Catholic schools that were on the verge of closing received new life thanks to taxpayer-funded vouchers. Let’s call this what it is: a bailout. The government can choose to bail out General Motors; it can’t bail out the Catholic Church.
With any luck, this won’t be going on in New Hampshire much longer. Americans United and the American Civil Liberties Union argue in their lawsuit that the tax credit plan is just a back-door method to do something that the New Hampshire Constitution plainly forbids: award taxpayer money to religion.
Part I, Article 6, of that document guarantees that “no person shall ever be compelled to pay towards the support of the schools of any sect or denomination.” Furthermore, Part II, Article 83, states that “no money raised by taxation shall ever be granted or applied for the use of the schools or institutions of any religious sect or denomination.
What part of “no money raised by taxation” did New Hampshire legislators not understand?
For more than 200 years, religion in America has been voluntarily supported, and it has done quite well under that system. The churches I have been involved with over the years have undertaken many projects designed to spread our beliefs, help the hurting and draw people to what we do, but we’ve always been guided by one bedrock principle: If the men and women sitting in the pews can’t be persuaded to pay for it, we don’t do it.
I would advise New Hampshire legislators (and some misguided clergy in the state) to listen to that wise American sage Benjamin Franklin. He put it best: “When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not care to support it, so that its professors are obliged to call for the help of the civil power, ‘tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.”
Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State in Washington, D.C.