Redefining ‘Religious Liberty’ into Nothing?

by Dan Quinn

Religious-righters are twisting and redefining “religious liberty” so much that the term itself is in danger of becoming almost meaningless. Fortunately, a growing number of mainstream religious leaders from around the state are calling out the nonsense. The latest battleground: public subsidies (such as vouchers) for religious schools.

The rabidly anti-gay, religious-right group Houston Area Pastor Council, which also goes by the name Texas Pastor Council and U.S. Pastor Council, is leading the effort to repeal the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO). The group, led by one of Houston’s most vicious anti-gay activists, Dave Welch, claims that barring discrimination against people because of who they are or whom they love violates the religious freedom of people to, well, discriminate.

Then last week Welch’s group filed a brief with the Texas Supreme Court arguing that the failure of the state to provide taxpayer funding to faith-based schools is also a violation of religious freedom. The brief is for a major court long-running case on whether the way Texas funds its public schools violates the state Constitution. The Pastor Council argues, in part:

The total and complete exclusion of religious providers from the public education system severely implicates religious liberty, whereas their inclusion clearly does not violate religious liberty or the Establishment Clause per Zelman v.Harris, 536 U.S. 639 (2002). The parties have not brought this case as a religious liberty case. Consequently, while the issue of religious liberty is not directly before the Court, the exclusion of religious providers from the current system of public education severely implicates religious liberty under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the Texas Constitution and the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Just like the suggestion that discrimination is religious freedom, the argument that religious freedom requires government funding of faith-based institutions is absurd. It’s also dangerous to religious freedom itself.

In fact, Pastors for Texas Children, which includes more than 1,200 faith leaders from 500+ Texas churches of all denominations, is rightly arguing that public funding for faith-based schools would actually threaten religious liberty. From the group’s press release today:

God’s Word that is taught in our fine church schools needs no help from the State of Texas.

Government control always follows government dollars, whether in the form of vouchers or tuition tax credits. The last thing religious schools need is the oversight of governmental agencies. These schools were founded in the first place to have the freedom to teach without this regulation.

Religious liberty is a gift from Almighty God accorded to all people. This eternal and holy principle is expressed powerfully in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, expressly prohibiting government from making an “establishment of religion.”

Private school vouchers and tuition tax credits funding religious schools inevitably would support religious teaching contrary to certain individual citizens’ personal convictions, whether Baptist, Catholic, Hindu, Muslim, Wiccan, or atheist.

Pastors for Texas Children goes on to insist that Texas fully fund its public schools — something the Legislature has repeatedly refused to do. In fact, public schools are still struggling to deal with billions of dollars state lawmakers cut from public education in 2011. Pastors for Texas Children says the state’s failure to “make suitable provision” for public schools is a violation of the Texas Constitution. They’re right.

Advocates for giving public subsidies to private and religious schools, through vouchers or other schemes, seem just fine with the Legislature setting up public schools to fail by cutting their funding. Now they argue that sending tax dollars to faith-based schools is simply about religious freedom. Nonsense. The truth is that they’re simply looking for any argument that will help them dismantle public education.