A collage of a the top of the church on the left and the top of the Supreme Court on the right

State of Disunion

SCOTUS Is Eroding the Separation of Church and State

The conservative Right has spent years trying to destroy our public education system. With the Supreme Court's recent decision, they now have set a clear pathway.

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Last week, the Supreme Court’s outrageous oral arguments over abortion in the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization and the court’s refusal to halt Texas’s abortion bounty law dominated the news. But that wasn’t their only controversial, disastrous ruling that week: In a 6-3 decision for Carson v. Makin, which asked the court whether the government could require the state of Maine to subsidize religious education, SCOTUS ruled that laws prohibiting the use of public funds for religious education were a form of religious discrimination.This represents a catastrophe for the separation of church and state—and a boon for conservatives looking to destroy public education and flood churches with government money.

Conservatives in the U.S. have long despised public education. During the 1980s, President Reagan appointed Terrell Bell as Secretary of Education to work himself out of a job by shrinking, or abolishing, the department, and shuffling children into church-run classrooms. Under Trump, Betsy DeVos followed this tradition of wanting to defund public schools, and instead have the government provide vouchers for children to go to parochial schools.

The GOP has also been the beneficiary of homeschooling producing “foot soldiers for God,” who almost invariably vote Republican. In return, the GOP has worked hand in hand with parochial schools to ensure that they do not need to meet state educational standards, and that homeschooling is almost entirely deregulated and oversight nonexistent. Florida leads the way, expanding school vouchers for private schools and deliberately underfunding public ones.

With religious schools, there’s very little academic oversight, and even less financial. Two-thirds of private schools are religious, meaning that they are run through a church. The church is theoretically responsible for providing financial accountability, but in reality the IRS long ago stopped auditing churches except in extreme circumstances. Florida is pouring another $200 million into school vouchers on top of the billion they already spend, with scant evidence to suggest that it is working.

In other words, the Supreme Court just made it nearly mandatory for states to throw money at religious-based grifts. However, this goes way beyond providing an easy way for places like Florida to shovel nearly unregulated billions of dollars into churches they like.

The fight over “school choice” dates back to the ’60s and ’70s, when all-white Christian schools wanted to retain their tax-exempt status. This became the central political issue for people like Jerry Falwell, and was the catalyst for what became the Christian Right as a political block in the U.S. Today, religious schools aren’t (theoretically) allowed to discriminate on the basis of race, but they’re allowed to ignore most other civil rights laws. They’re always exempted from Title IX (prohibiting sex discrimination), and the Americans With Disabilities Act. They’re also exempt from state and local non-discrimination laws against LGBT people; in many cases, they refuse to serve children whose parents or siblings are LGBT.

This illustrates the broader agenda here: Religious schools are meant to reshape American society by dictating who has access to them, and to an education in general. Suppose the plaintiffs in Carson v. Makin who don’t have any public schools available have an LGBT child? Or are LGBT themselves? Or have a child with disabilities? Functionally, the state is no longer providing public education, though it remains there in theory.

This ruling is also a Trojan horse for one of the biggest issues for religious conservatives: bringing back prayer in schools. In Ohio, front-running U.S. Senate candidate Josh Mandel has made bringing back compulsory religion and prayer in public schools one of his top campaign issues. Conservatives see bringing back prayer in schools, and making Americans Christians whether they want to be or not, as a panaçea to all of society’s ills: from abortion, to gun violence, to poverty. They believe that all of our problems can be traced back to removing prayer and state-sponsored religion from our schools. Rather than addressing problems with solutions based in research, social science, or good policy, their solution is, as always, thoughts and prayers.

The Supreme Court has essentially handed them a roadmap to test their theory that if everyone just went to a nice Christian school and prayed a lot, everything would be super. With queers in schools gone, kids with Downs and cerebral palsy no longer sucking up funding, boys being free to be boys and girls being free to be girls, and a curriculum based on the three R’s (rosaries, Revelations, and resurrection), they’ll finally Make America Great Again with a heaping helping of that old-time religion.

SCOTUS has told states that they no longer have to provide for public education so long as a religious-based alternative is made available through vouchers. It seems nearly inevitable that states like Texas and Florida will test this by slashing funding for public schools and opening the purse for vouchers to religious schools even further.

The courts today resemble those that gave us Plessy v. Ferguson on the basis that rights that exist only in theory are as good as one that are actively enforced. This court has no issue deciding that an education is available because their parents can stop being lesbians at any time. Or that as long as the state puts some educational videos online, that counts as providing for all the people who can’t (or won’t) go to a religious school.

The possibilities for abuse here are endless, and it is inevitable that deep red states will take this SCOTUS ruling and run with it. The result is a mandate for churches to get richer, more students getting a worse education, and a widening of the two-tiered country we live in.


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