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BF&M article on wives could sow discord, Souter says in voucher dissent

WASHINGTON (BP)–The Southern Baptist Convention’s confessional statement on a wife’s relationship with her husband is an example of a religious teaching that could sow societal discord as school vouchers gain acceptance, Supreme Court Associate Justice David Souter says.

Souter’s comments came in a 34-page dissent from the high court’s June 27 ruling that a voucher program that includes religious schools is constitutional. The 5-4 majority said the Cleveland, Ohio, school-choice program is a “program of true private choice” and “entirely neutral with respect to religion.”

In his dissent, in which three other justices joined, Souter said friction should be expected among religious groups contending for voucher money and from taxpayers “who take their liberty of conscience seriously. Religious teaching at taxpayer expense simply cannot be cordoned from taxpayer politics, and every major religion currently espouses social positions that provoke intense opposition.”

All taxpayers will not be satisfied to “fund the espousal of a wife’s obligation of obedience to her husband, presumably taught in any schools adopting the articles of faith of the Southern Baptist Convention,” Souter wrote in illustrating his point. In a footnote, he quoted from the SBC’s statement of faith, The Baptist Faith and Message, which reads in part in Article 18: “A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ.”

It is not known whether the justice was familiar with the context of this one statement within the entire SBC article on the family that also reads: “The husband and wife are of equal worth before God, since both are created in God’s image.” Also, there was no mention of the SBC statement of the husband’s responsibility: “A husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church,” referencing the Ephesians 5:25 description of Christ’s total sacrifice.

Those comments “underscore the degree to which he totally and completely misunderstands the issue,” said Richard Land, president of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

He hopes Baptist schools will follow the biblical teachings outlined in The Baptist Faith and Message, but “taxpayers, secular or otherwise, are funding the beneficiaries’ choice, not religious teaching,” Land said. “The ‘taxpayer expense’ goes to eligible taxpayers, not institutions, and the eligible beneficiaries utilize their benefits at institutions of their choice.”

The Cleveland program, which was adopted by the Ohio legislature in response to the failure of the city’s school system to reach the state’s performance standards, provides a voucher to parents to use in choosing a variety of educational options for their children. They may choose not only private secular or religious schools, but they may receive tutorial aid if their children remain in Cleveland public schools. Charter and magnet schools are available as well. Vouchers also can be used at schools in nearby districts, but no such schools decided to participate.

“This was a religious liberty case,” Land said. “The principle at stake was: ‘If the government chooses to offer a benefit — in this case vouchers — to parents, should it be able then to discriminate against religious institutions and say they are the only ones that cannot receive the vouchers?’ We believe, along with the Supreme Court, the answer to that is an emphatic ‘No.'”

Souter’s full comments about teachings that elicit strong opposition were:

“Not all taxpaying Protestant citizens, for example, will be content to underwrite the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church condemning the death penalty. Nor will all of America’s Muslims acquiesce in paying for the endorsement of the religious Zionism taught in many religious Jewish schools, which combines ‘a nationalistic sentiment’ in support of Israel with a ‘deeply religious’ element. Nor will every secular taxpayer be content to support Muslim views on differential treatment of the sexes, or, for that matter, to fund the espousal of a wife’s obligation of obedience to her husband, presumably taught in any schools adopting the articles of faith of the Southern Baptist Convention.”

Souter said such views “have been safe in the sectarian pulpits and classrooms of this nation not only because the free exercise protects them directly, but because the ban on supporting religious establishment has protected free exercise, by keeping it relatively private. With the arrival of vouchers in religious schools, that privacy will go, and along with it will go confidence that religious disagreement will stay moderate.”