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Religion vs. the Public

Throughout our world history, religion and public life have invariably showed mutual dependency. From the ideal vision of Plato's Republic, in which the "good" of society was the basis for defining the "good" in religion, to the Jeffersonian vision of separation between Church and State, the evolution of their relationship demonstrates the power that religion exerts on the spirit of society. In today's heterogeneous civilization, especially in the melting pot of the United States, religious homogeneity and ethno-social diversity have proven to be incompatible. From the impression of religious values on political figures, to the hot debate of parochial school voucher programs, and prayer in schools, we have been asking the sensitive but essential question: "what should be the relationship between religion and public life?" Does the public expression of religious conviction necessarily infringe upon the religious liberty of another? Does the restriction of religious practice to the private sphere undermine free exercise? What degree of neutrality should our government observe? These are the questions that will be reasked and examined here by way of narration and presentation of current events that attempt to shape the bond between religion and public life. For analyses and synopses of Supreme Court Cases that have shaped the legality of religious freedom, please visit the Court Decisions section.

Wisconsin School Voucher Program left alone by the Supreme Court


November 9, 1998.

In an 8-1 ruling, the Supreme Court refused to hear a challenge to the Wisconsin's School voucher program, which explicitly permits state subsidy of parochial education in the Milwaukee school district. Although the Court's refusal signified indecision or postponement more than endorsement, it is expected to encourage other states to establish similar programs. The decision came in the midst of a vociferous national debate over the legality and merit of state parochial school funding. The Supreme Courts of Ohio (see related links) and Vermont are currently hearing similar cases, as are lower courts in Arizona and Maine. Among the opponents of the program were the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Federation of Teachers, and National Education Association, whose prowess and influence have suppressed emerging movements endorsing school voucher programs in other regions of the country.


The principal legal question of voucher programs is whether is violates the Establishment Clause. Educational funding is a state issue; however, since the ratification of the 14th amendment in 1868, which stated due process and jurisdiction, states conform to equal protection of the laws. The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) was enacted in 1989 as an experimental plan to allow a limited number of students to use publicly funded vouchers to attend non-sectarian schools in the Milwaukee region. The "non-sectarian" restriction was eliminated in 1995. The Wisconsin taxpayer immediately filed suit. On June 10, 1998, the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the MPCP (Jackson v. Benson, No. 97-0270), marking the first decision to endorse public funding of parochial and sectarian schools. The ruling pivoted on the factor of "private choice," which effectively makes funding toward sectarian schools indirect as claimed by the Court. However, it is difficult to concede that voucher funding is distributed on a "neutral, secular criteria that neither favor nor disfavor religion" because the vouchers are redeemable at private schools only, which are overwhelmingly sectarian. The nominal effect of legalizing MPCP may be neutral distribution of public educational funds. However, the real effect is utterly lopsided and partial.


The school voucher program has been an irresistible issue for politicians because of its unique tendency to attract supporters from both sides of the political spectrum. Liberals support it as an educational reform device to help poor inner city kids gain a quality education. Conservatives and the Religious Right support it to instill "family values" and religiosity into the growing "pagan" population. Unfortunately, in politics the popular decision is not always the right decision. Many believe that the deflation of funds from public schools will unrecoverably enfeeble the already precarious institution of public education. In Milwaukee, there has emerged a counter-movement led by Jesse Jackson, Jr. and advocates nationwide to strengthen and stand up for public school. They unveiled a 12-point plan to mitigate the effects of fund-draining (see related links).

Related Links

Senate Approves International Religious Freedom Bill

October 09, 1998.

The Senate has unanimously passed a bill that requires the president to take action against countries that repeated violate the principle of religious liberty. The International Religious Freedom Act equips the federal government to help deter religious persecution overseas.

Read CNN's coverage of the news.
Read the Jewish Telegraphic Agency's coverge.
Read International Association for Religious Freedom's outline of U.S. legislation on religious persecution abroad.
Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad
"Activists Fight Battle for Religious Liberty All Over the World," June 14, 1998.
(Washington Times)

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