Last week I wrote about the victory scored in Indiana by school choice advocates when a far-reaching bill allowing parents of poor and middle class children to send their kids to private and religious schools rather than a failing public system. The Indiana Supreme Court ruled constitutional a measure that rightly allows a percentage of state education funds to follow the kids to whatever school was best for them. The principle here is that allowing a government monopoly on public education is something that prioritizes the needs of unions and bureaucracies rather than then needs of children. Vouchers create more engagement of families in education and provide much-needed competition for a public system that needs it in order to be forced to improve.
However, there was one argument against school choice that I did not address last week. That is the possibility that public funds could be used to finance private or religious schools that teach hate or undermine democracy. Ironically, the emptiness of that point was underscored by a news story out of Tennessee where Governor Bill Haslam is trying to shepherd his own vouchers bill through the legislature. In contrast to other venues throughout the country where liberal ideologues who wish to defend the government education monopoly are the prime obstacles to reform, in the Volunteer State the problem is a faction of conservatives who have no objection to helping parochial schools, so long as the faith upheld in them is their own.
When Mitt Romney mentioned the issue of religious freedom during last week’s presidential debate, the lines on the graph indicating the interest of members of CNN’s focus group spiked. But, contrary to the liberal spinners who dismissed the point as mere rhetoric, efforts to constrict religious liberty are very much an issue in 2012. The main focus is the effort to push back against the Obama administration’s efforts to enforce the Department of Health and Human Services mandate to force institutions and individuals to pay for services that offend their consciences and faith. This dangerous by-product of ObamaCare has raised the stakes on the health care debate because unless it is repealed, it will result in a redefinition of religious freedom that will ensure that free exercise of faith will be banned from the public square.
Just as significant is a referendum battle in Florida that will not only help determine the future of religious liberty in this country, but whether we are capable of facing up to our troubled past. Florida’s Amendment 8 is an effort to formally allow the state to legalize aid to religious institutions providing social services as well as education. It was made necessary by a lawsuit launched by left-wingers determined to prevent religious groups from providing aid to prisoners in the state’s jails who say the Florida Constitution bans the flow of state money to any religious institution, group or individual. They are right, since Florida was one of many states to pass a so-called Blaine amendment in the late 19th century as part of a campaign of discrimination against Catholics. Though the left looks to such Blaine amendments to enforce their ideas about an impenetrable wall of separation between church and state, it is nothing more than a holdover from an era of religious hate. Repealing it via the passage of Amendment 8 will not just make things easier for religious social service and education providers in Florida. But it could also be a turning point for the battle to defend religious liberty in America.