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Blocking of Ohio voucher program ‘outrageous,’ ERLC’s Land says

WASHINGTON (BP)–The head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s religious liberty agency has blasted a federal judge’s blocking of a Cleveland, Ohio, educational voucher program, calling the decision a “direct assault on the rights of parents and the rights of children and the best interests of children.”
On the day before Cleveland’s public schools were to open, federal Judge Solomon Oliver threw educators and families into a state of turmoil by issuing an injunction halting the city’s voucher program because it appears to have the “primary effect of advancing religion,” according to The New York Times. He was blocking the program until he had time to ponder a lawsuit challenging its legality, Oliver said, but he also said there was “no substantial possibility” he would rule in the program’s favor, The Times reported.
The four-year-old program allows a low-income family to use a voucher of no more than $2,500 in state funds for tuition costs at the school of its choice, including a religious one. About 4,000 students were expected to attend 56 private schools, many of them religious, this year.
The primary effect of the voucher program is not to advance religion but “to empower parents to make the best choices as they decide them,” not as a judge or “as some public school, [National Education Association] labor union officials in Washington decide,” said Richard Land, president of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission on the agency’s radio program, “For Faith and Family.”
“The real issue is whether poor people, working-class people, lower-middle-class people are going to continue to be trapped with no other alternative economically but to send their children to the public schools no matter how dissatisfied they may be with the public school, no matter how much they feel their values may be assaulted in those public schools.
“All that vouchers do is give back a portion of the taxes that these people pay so that they have the choice of either using that tax money to support public schools or, if they feel their children’s need would be better served in a private school, to send them to a private school and even up to and including a school that is religiously affiliated,” Land said.
“The people who control public schools understand that far too often they are putting out a product that is so subpar that unless they have a captive audience that they can’t afford fair and equal competition. This is an outrageous decision.”
The timing “appears calculated to unnerve parents and to hang a heavy cloud of uncertainty over this program,” Land said.
Teachers organizations, including the NEA, and strict-separationist organizations, such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State, hailed the decision.
“I think it will bring the whole voucher thing to a screeching halt nationwide,” said AU Executive Director Barry Lynn, according to The Washington Post. “These programs do advance religion, and taxpayers should not fund religious schools.”
Ohio Attorney General Betty Montgomery filed an appeal with the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati after Oliver’s Aug. 24 ruling, according to The Times.
Ohio’s Supreme Court declared the voucher program unconstitutional in late May but not on church-state grounds. The court said the legislation establishing the voucher program was unconstitutional because it violated a state rule requiring only one subject per bill, but the justices said the program did not violate the separation of church and state.
The Ohio legislature took care of that problem this summer by passing new legislation funding the program.
The voucher issue appears destined for the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately. Last year, the high court allowed a Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling upholding that’s state voucher program to stand by refusing to review the decision.
While public support for education choice has grown in recent years, it remains a controversial issue in America and, to at least some extent, in the SBC. Southern Baptists increasingly have become supportive of school choice. Many Southern Baptists, however, traditionally have opposed vouchers on church-state grounds, and now some oppose them not on that basis but out of concern for the religious school’s autonomy.
In the Wisconsin case, the ERLC signed onto a friend-of-the-court brief with the Christian Legal Society, the National Association of Evangelicals and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod supporting the Milwaukee program. The brief argued the exclusion of religious schools from a voucher program for only secular private schools would constitute discrimination against religion, while inclusion of religious schools would not violate church-state separation.
The Baptist Joint Committee, the SBC’s church-state representative in Washington prior to the 1990s, has long maintained vouchers for religious schools violate the First Amendment’s establishment-of-religion clause.