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Three years from now, a case comes before the Supreme Court arguing for nation-wide parochial school vouchers—programs that use public money to subsidize tuition for religious schools. Proponents of the case cite two recent Supreme Court decisions: a 2002 ruling in which the Court upheld vouchers for parochial schools in Cleveland and a 2004 ruling that forced Washington state to fund theology majors at religious colleges. The combination of the two rulings makes the case’s outcome inevitable: the Cleveland voucher program affirms that taxpayers’ money can pay for religiously-affiliated schools and the Washington decision supports public funding for explicitly religious courses of study. Even if the religious doctrines espoused by parochial schools rub off on the children who use the expanded voucher program, proponents argue that the Supreme Court hasn’t shrunk from funding religious study before. And three years from now, the once rock-solid division between Church and State comes tumbling down.
As this nightmarish scenario suggests, we are relieved that the Supreme Court in fact ruled in favor of Washington state last Thursday, denying that the state should have to fund theology majors at religious colleges. The Court has avoided the slippery slope for now. Thankfully, the seven justices in the majority maintained religious choice for all students.
Clearly, the objective study of religion can lead to a nuanced and realistic understanding of today’s increasingly globalized world. Few have a problem with public money to fund such scholarship. What reasonable citizens object to is state funds paying for a dogmatic and colored religious education. Since the Supreme Court’s decision only applies to the funding of theology majors at “pervasively religious schools,” students studying religion at secular institutions will continue to receive public support. In essence, the Court has sought only to prevent taxpayer dollars from funding non-pluralistic religious instruction and training, not religious scholarship in general.
Opponents of the Court’s ruling cite plaintiff Joshua D. Davey’s decision to attend Harvard Law School instead of becoming a minister as evidence that not all participants in his parochial college’s theology program become ministers. Thus, they argue, state scholarships are not necessarily being applied to the training of ministers. What their arguments fail to take into account is the systematically biased approach religious colleges take to teaching theology. States should only support the study of theology when it acknowledges religious choice and pluralism, or else they risk de facto state sponsorship of one religious mindset.
When Americans choose to follow a particular faith, they should do it uninfluenced by state-funded education. Earnest, voluntary religious faith, the foundation for organized religion’s many positive effects on American society, should never be indirectly controlled by government support of obviously doctrinaire curricula. The Court is not discriminating against religion. It is just ensuring that the tradition of religious pluralism on which this country was founded continues to flourish.
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