0.1 Finally, Equality for Religious Schools

(Cleveland Plain-Dealer, June 30, 1997, p. 9B)
On Monday, the Supreme Court struck a long-overdue blow for equality.  The Constitution, the Justices held, doesn't require discrimination against religion:  The government may evenhandedly provide secular remedial education to students at all schools, public, private, and religious.  The Court got this one absolutely right. Imagine that the fire department decided not to put out fires at religious schools.  Or imagine that the police decided not to answer calls from these schools.  That would rightly be seen as outrageous discrimination.  Sure, the government shouldn't specially favor religious institutions, but the government shouldn't discriminate against them, either. The same is true of education, which is for many people the most valuable benefit that the state provides.  The government ought not give more benefits to religious school students than it gives to students at secular schools, public or private.  But why must it give anything less? The First Amendment certainly doesn't require such discrimination against religion; it simply bars laws "respecting an establishment of religion."  Equal treatment of everyone, without regard to religion, simply is not an establishment of religion. Even the metaphor of "the wall of separation of church and state" should require neutrality, not discrimination.  The wall doesn't stop the police or the firefighters at the religious school's door.  Neither should it stop remedial education teachers who come to the school, as they do to any other school, to teach purely secular subjects. There's no "mixing of church and state" in any of these examples.  The police, the fire department, and the remedial teachers keep themselves separate from religion by remaining completely unconcerned about the school's religiosity.  The government treats the religious school exactly like it treats a nonreligious institution.  Both separation and equality are thus scrupulously maintained. And these sorts of evenhanded programs are nothing new.  When Congress passed the GI Bill to pay for the education of veterans, it correctly didn't limit the law to secular schools.  The Bill didn't mix church and state by giving GIs free choice.  Rather, it treated equally those veterans who wanted to go to UCLA and those who wanted to go to Notre Dame, those who wanted to become engineers and those who wanted to become ministers. Are religious schools helped when the government uses my tax money to provide remedial education on the school's premises?  Sure they are -- just like they are helped when the government clears the snow in front of the schools, or collects the schools' trash, or gives all flood victims, including the schools, disaster relief funds.  But we accept these programs because they provide important public benefits to everyone, religious or not.  Public spending for remedial education, for police and fire protection, or for school vouchers should all stand on the same footing:  So long as the government doesn't specially favor religion, none of us has any constitutional grounds for complaint. Of course the Court didn't say that the government must help students at private schools.  That's still a choice that voters will make for themselves.  But the Court did say that the voters have that choice:  That voters can decide, if they want, to help all children, without excluding those whose parents choose a religious education. My parents sent me to secular schools.  If I have children, I'll probably send them to secular schools, too.  But I know others have a different preference.  They pay their taxes just like I do.  The government should be able to provide services for the schools to which those people send their kids on the same terms as it provides services for my kids. That's the true meaning of the Constitution, whether we're talking about police services, the fire department, the GI Bill, or elementary schools.  Equality for all.  Special benefits for none.  Discrimination against none.