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
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
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
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.