Weingarten: Right wants states to use public dollars for religious schools
AFT president Randi Weingarten | Cliff Owen/AP

WASHINGTON – The religious right wants the U.S. Supreme Court to force states to use public dollars for religious schools, Teachers President Randi Weingarten warns.

In a message to her union’s 1.6 million members late last month, the AFT leader, a civics and government teacher from New York City, adds the religious rightists are counting on the High Court’s five-man GOP-named majority to uphold their demand.

Weingarten commented just days before the court heard oral arguments on the case, Espinoza vs Montana Department of Revenue, on Jan. 22.

In the case, three families who had received taxpayer-paid $150 yearly vouchers to send their kids to any private school will lose them at the end of this school year, because using the vouchers to send kids to religious school violates the federal constitution’s ban and a state constitutional ban on government “establishment” – promotion of — religion.

Other states have similar bans in their constitutions. If the court sides with the right, all those prohibitions, called “Blaine Amendments,” would get tossed.

The GOP Trump administration, for whom the religious right is a major political constituency, joined in the argument before the justices, on behalf of the parents. Trump’s Justice Department argued states should send taxpayer-paid vouchers to parents to use in religious schools.

Weingarten’s union, plus the Tennessee Education Association and civil liberties groups, argued in friend-of-the-court briefs that state aid to religious schools is wrong.

But in an indication of right-wing commitment, friend-of-the-court briefs on the religious right’s side came in not just from think tanks, but from GOP-run red states and from Scott Walker, Wisconsin’s former right-wing and notoriously rabid anti-union anti-worker governor.

Weingarten, drawing on her teaching experience, also strongly spoke out against the religious right in her letter to her members.

“The Espinoza case is supported by anti-public education forces, like the DeVos family, that are focused on privatizing the tax dollars that should be invested in the public schools that 90%” of U.S. students attend, she explained.

“As a person of faith, I’m deeply worried about the considerable impact this case could have. Our freedom to practice religion comes from the free exercise clause of our Constitution and the concept of separation of church and state. As our brief lays out, the framers never intended to require public funding of religious institutions or schools. In fact, that’s exactly what the free exercise clause and the separation of church and state were intended to prevent.”

“The framers were rightly concerned public funding of religion would entangle the government in the functioning of institutions and would undermine freedom of religion.”

“The ‘free exercise’ (of religion) clause is what ensures and enshrines Americans’ freedom to practice the religion of their choice by keeping the government out of those decisions. That is how we became a nation of citizens who are deeply religious and who hold diverse faiths and views,” Weingarten, who is Jewish, added.

But she also points out wealthy right-wing families, including that of notoriously anti-worker Education Secretary Elizabeth “Betsy” DeVos, paid for the case.

Other rich funders include billionaire Charles Koch and the Walton family, owners of Walmart. Weingarten called the Espinoza case “a backdoor attempt to get the Supreme Court to impose the failed DeVos agenda of private school vouchers nationwide.”

“We need to make sure teachers, students, parents, staff, and all allies who believe in public education understand speak out about the ramifications of this case. The court should respect the Constitution’s clear lines ensuring religious liberty by keeping church and state separate. That means it must not mandate public support for religious schools,” she ended.

Meanwhile, at the court, the justices first wrestled with the question of who benefits from the vouchers, the parents or the schools. Then they tackled the main issue.

“We have a founding father, (James) Madison, lobbying heavily for the free-exercise clause and equally to stop states from both establishing religions or using public funds to support them,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor told Trump Justice Department lawyer Jeffrey Wall.

“There’s been a long history of people who for non-discriminatory reasons, but for reasons related to their belief in the separation of church and state, that have taken the position that the state should not give money to religious institutions.”

“Madison was talking about…‘compelled support’ laws, preferential aid to the church,” Wall replied. “You can’t deny a generally available public benefit to an entity that’s otherwise qualified based solely on its religious character or nature,” he told Justice Stephen Breyer.

“The Constitution does not bar Montana from enacting and applying a state constitutional provision that keeps its own state legislature out of the business of funding of religious schools,” said the state’s lawyer, Adam Unikowsky.

“The ‘no-aid’ clause does not prohibit anyone’s free exercise of religion. To the contrary, it protects religious freedom by protecting religious schools from government influence and ensuring government cannot use aid as leverage to influence the content of religious education,” Unikowsky said. The justices will decide the case by June 30.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.