Does the Religious Freedom Amendment
violate or strenghten the First Amendment?
June 10, 1998
in this forum:
How does this proposal protect minority faiths from discrimination? Is this amendment necessary? Does the amendment allow religious schools to receive federal and state aid ? What would the RFA allow that is not already granted under the First Amendment? Is this amendment just an example of the GOP appeasing its constituency? Robert Phillips of Ft. Worth, TX, asks: The final phrase, "deny equal access to a benefit on account of religion," seems to open up the possibility of federal and state aid to private elementary and secondary education sponsored by faith based organizations (churches). Is this a correct or reasonable assumption? If so, does this mean that the organization that receives the money (not the United States or the States) may use that money to teach its beliefs to its students?
Arne Owens of the Christian Coalition responds:
The intent of that final line in the proposed amendment is to establish fairness in the treatment of charities and social services that are faith-based, that have a religious connection. It says you cannot discriminate in the distribution of public funds and benefits because of religion. If government chooses to assist private charities or social service providers generally, then they cannot exclude organizations because of a religious affiliation. This means, as taxpayers, that our tax dollars that already flow into strictly secular drug rehabilitation programs with a 20 percent success rate would now flow into drug rehab programs like the faith-based Teen Challenge, with an 80 percent success rate. As a person of faith who pays his share of taxes, I know where the hard earned dollars that I contribute to the federal treasury could be used most effectively.
On the issue of public funds for private or parochial education, in many ways that bridge has already been crossed. Federal student loans, or Pell grants, are already provided to students for use at colleges owned and operated by religious organizations. Welfare dollars can be saved by an extended family and used to send a promising child to parochial school in the inner city. As a separate policy matter, government can provide vouchers to parents of students for use at private or parochial schools.
This is already being done in some states and Congress is attempting to do the same for inner city students in D.C. The church/state separation argument employed here is largely a smoke screen to hide efforts to counter education reform measures which include school choice and educational scholarships, or vouchers. It is an effort to keep tax dollars flowing exclusively into the increasingly problem plagued public school system. But that is a debate apart from the issue of religious freedom.
Terri Schroeder of the ACLU responds:
The last phrase of the amendment states that the government shall not "deny access to a benefit on account of religion." This provision would allow the government to give private religious schools public funding through vouchers or direct public aid. When the state uses tax money to advance religion, it violates the consciences of taxpayers who rightfully expect the government to remain neutral toward religion. The government should not be allowed, much less required, to use our tax money to promote religious activities, whether they are sponsored by Baptists, Jews, or members of the Nation of Islam.
The right to speak and assemble around religious beliefs is under current law. This principle of non-discrimination is an excellent one, and has already received complete vindication by Congress in the Equal Access Act, and by the Supreme Court in cases like Rosenberger v. University of Virginia, Widmar v. Vincent, and Board of Education v. Mergens. Yet the language in the amendment would have caused a major and troubling change in church-state relations. It would have forced states that adopt student voucher plans to distribute public funds to private religious schools. In short, when it comes to government subsidies, religions would have to be treated like secular groups.
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