Ever think we’re finally approaching a clear understanding of the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution? Think again. Every week seems to bring a fresh controversy about the separation of church and state in public life, whether it be a public memorial featuring a cross or a Christian prayer said before a city council meeting. Religion is seeping into the public education system as well, with legislators finding ways to introduce biblical ideas into public school courses or funnel public money to parochial schools through voucher programs.
In a major win for school voucher advocates, the Indiana Supreme Court on March 26 upheld the state’s school voucher program, which allows low- and middle-income families to send their children to private and parochial schools using public money. As the New York Times reported, the majority of approximately 9,000 families that have enrolled since the law passed in 2011 have selected schools with a religious affiliation for their children. That’s because the majority of approved private schools are parochial, a statistic not unique to Indiana.
Voucher programs have long raised questions about the separation of church and state, namely whether taxpayer money should be used to fund religious schools that are not subject to government oversight. In 2002 the U.S. Supreme Court declared Ohio’s school voucher program, where the majority of public money was used to enroll students in parochial schools, constitutional in a 5-4 ruling. Writing for the conservative majority in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist said the “Ohio program is entirely neutral with respect to religion” and “permits … individuals to exercise genuine choice among options public and private, secular and religious.” Many groups, including the ACLU, disagreed with the ruling as the so-called “genuine choice” provided by school vouchers is usually limited to religious schools.