(America Magazine) A government’s relationship to religions practiced within its borders affects all members of society. The freedom to worship is an obvious indicator of a country’s relationship to religion. A more complicated and subtle measure is public control and funding of religious education.
From mandated school prayer to the prohibition of prayer in public schools, from prohibiting the teaching of evolution to requiring the teaching of creationism, U.S. educational history is rife with examples of varying levels of government involvement with religious education in public schools. Current First Amendment jurisprudence prohibits direct government control or funding of sectarian religious education but permits government imposition of nondiscriminatory eligibility requirements for funding programs that benefit religious school students and parents.
The pending Supreme Court case, Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, will determine whether the First Amendment requires states to treat religious and nonreligious private schools equally when granting aid to education. The specifics of the case relate to a playground resurfacing program, but a wide variety of funding opportunities are at stake in states that provide such benefits. They may include busing, textbooks and equipment as well as tuition scholarships, tax refunds and vouchers to private but not religious schools. Catholic schools, which educate 41 percent of U.S. private school students, may reap short-term benefits from a ruling in favor of Trinity Lutheran, but long-term consequences are less sure.
The First Amendment’s dueling establishment and free exercise clauses are unique, but advocates for church-state educational partnerships in the United States can benefit from the experiences of other nations that use or have used public funds for religious education. [More]