Vouchers for Religious Schools Don’t Threaten the Separation of Church and State
The Supreme Court recently ruled that taxpayer money in Maine may be used for tuition at private religious schools, just as it may be used for tuition at public schools and nonreligious private schools in other communities. Critics claim that this decision “strikes another blow to the separation of church and state” and amounts to mandating a “subsidy for religion.”
This objection isn’t compelling because the principle “public money may not be used for religious purposes” is clearly false. Consider some counterexamples. First, public money pays for private religious education at the college level. Pell Grants, for instance, involve spending public money to pay for education at religious institutions such as BYU, Liberty, Oral Roberts, and more. Moreover, tax-funded student loan forgiveness for all implies tax-funded student loan forgiveness for people who attended those schools as well.
SNAP benefits may also be used for religious purposes—for instance, a Jewish family may use them to purchase apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah. Social Security payments can be used to buy and distribute Bibles. Indeed, even something like publicly-supplied water can be used for religious purposes—someone might use it for a baptism. (Granted it’s easier to regulate the use of vouchers than water, but the ease of regulation isn’t morally significant—even if the state could easily prevent people from using publicly-supplied water for a baptism, it would be wrong to do so.)
Critics of vouchers fail to distinguish between a direct subsidy for religion and a tax-funded entitlement distributed to citizens who may use that entitlement for religious purposes. If the government directly allocates money to solar panel producers, that’s a subsidy. It involves the government selecting a particular kind of power to support. But if the government sends someone a Social Security check that they in turn spend on solar panels, that hardly counts as a subsidy for solar power—that’s a citizen using their tax-funded entitlement as they see fit.
Similarly, if the government directly allocates money to Catholic churches, that would be a subsidy for religion. It involves the government selecting a particular religion to support. But if the government sends someone a voucher that they in turn use for a private Catholic school, that hardly counts as a subsidy for Catholicism—that’s a citizen using their tax-funded entitlement as they see fit. Citizens should be free to use school vouchers for private religious education because everyone should be free to use their state-supplied resources to pursue their own good in their own way, whether their good is religious or not.