Religion in school

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There has been no shortage of partisan fear-mongering and hysterical speculation about the lead players in President-elect Donald Trump’s forthcoming administration, and the latest has to do with your child’s education.

First the doomsayers came for Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. (C, 78%) (U.S. attorney general) and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (candidate for DHS secretary), erroneously and recklessly painting them as racists. Now, in one of the most perplexing claims about Trump’s Cabinet picks so far, multiple organizations are now saying proposed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is a threat to religious liberty.

No, really.

DeVos is a successful businesswoman and long-time advocate of educational freedom who currently serves as the chairman of the American Federation for Children, which pushes for school choice policies like vouchers, education savings accounts, and scholarship tax credit programs. Yet, some are hailing her as a major problem for the First Amendment. She has, however, drawn criticism from school choice advocates over her previous support of Common Core standards — a position she has since rescinded.

The claims made by the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and highlighted by the Baptist Joint Commission on Religious Liberty, assert that DeVos’ support for voucher and other school choice programs run directly against the First Amendment.

“The appointment of Betsy DeVos to oversee the U.S. Department of Education is an insult to public education. DeVos is a divisive figure who has spent much of her career working to privatize public education,” reads a statement from Americans United for Separation of Church and State’s executive director, Rev. Barry W. Lynn.

“Private school vouchers violate the fundamental principle of religious freedom because they fund religious education with taxpayer dollars. This is indeed a dark day for public education in America.”

The statement from the ACLU echoes the sentiment, alleging that vouchers sacrifice “our national commitment to religious liberty.”

Meanwhile, a post at the Baptist Joint Commission’s website highlights these concerns, while pointing to how vouchers undermine religious autonomy because of the regulatory complications that often accompany them.

To the first point, the claim that vouchers violate the “separation of church and state” and therefore the First Amendment comes from a gross misunderstanding of religious freedom in the United States — sadly, one that always seems to dominate the discussion.

The Establishment Clause was ratified to ensure that the state doesn’t pick an official religion — not prohibit religious institutions in the body politic from helping out with such compelling interests as public education or health care. To make this assertion would lead to such absurdities as barring Medicare and medical research funds from being used at Catholic, Baptist, and Jewish hospitals, or blocking Pell Grants from going to the University of Notre Dame. School vouchers don’t violate the Establishment Clause any more than these situations.

To be fair, vouchers can be harmful to religious liberty when they come with all sorts of other strings attached that are contradictory to the institutional conscience of the schools in question (e.g. Common Core). This is true whenever public funds are allocated to outside groups with regulatory strings attached.

Those problems, however, are a regulatory fix. So long as voucher programs are designed to allow for religious autonomy, they won’t harm religious autonomy. That doesn’t get at the point that others are making about allowing public education to mean more than a government-sanctioned monopoly on primary and secondary education.

The key to preserving freedom of religion and freedom of education isn’t to kill voucher programs, but to cut the regulatory strings and allow people to make the choices for themselves.

If there is an argument against having a school choice champion run Trump’s education department, it’s that the department (along with several others) should cease to exist the moment he’s sworn in (which Brian Darling previously addressed on CR). But if we must have a Department of Education, having one run by a school choice freedom fighter like Betsy DeVos isn’t a bad starting point at all — so long as her new position on Common Core holds.

School choice gives parents the freedom to choose the best education for their children, affording them the choice of how their tax dollars are spent. Further, it increases the ability of religious institutions to more fully engage in the educational marketplace and fulfill their missions beyond the families who can afford the luxury of having more education options.

DeVos’ stances on vouchers, ESAs, and other similar policies are far from a threat to religious liberty; they are a boon for it.

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Nate Madden is a Staff Writer for Conservative Review, focusing on religious freedom, jihadism, and the judiciary. He previously served as the Director of Policy Relations for the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative. A Publius Fellow, John Jay Fellow, Citadel Parliamentary Fellow and National Journalism Center alumnus, Nate’s writing has previously appeared in several religious and news publications. Follow him @NateMadden_IV.