Saturday, June 8, 2013

Religious-School Aid Passes, Is Vetoed

At the MCPEARL Biennial Meeting on April 17, Jody Siegle told members how a powerful lobby pushed through the N.Y. State legislature a special education bill to segregate children on a religious basis and grant unlimited funds for religious schools.

Siegle is the Executive Director of the Monroe County School Boards Association and a MCPEARL board member.

On the last day of the 2012 session, without public notice or discussion, legislators passed a bill requiring each public school district to “take into account any possible educational impact differences between the school environment and family background may have on the child’s ability to receive a free appropriate public education.”

If parents thought their child would learn better at a private school, they could sue the district for private-school tuition. The district, but not the parents, must provide documents to support its opinion. The bill put the burden of proof on the district.

The measure placed no limit on the amount of money the school district would have to pay the private schools.

Siegle said no study has shown that children learn better in a culturally or religiously segregated environment. She felt sure that if anyone had done such a study, the bill’s supporters would have made use of it.

The legislation contradicted federal policy, expressed in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which favors education for children with special needs in the least restrictive environment.

The bill does not use the word religion. When Siegle first read it, she thought rich parents from rich school districts wanted to put their children into luxurious private schools.

However, she brought to the meeting copies of a newspaper article that credited the Jewish ultra-orthodox organization Agudath Israel for the coup. The story came from Hamodia, a newspaper that bills itself The Daily Newspaper of Torah Jewry.

The article said, “‘This is something I have been dreaming of since the day I got into the Agudah. This is what I wanted. This was the goal,”’ Mrs. Leah Steinberg, director of Agudath Israel’s Special Education Affairs for the past 12 years told Hamodia.”

“Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein (D-Brooklyn), whose help Agudath Israel said was indispensable in getting the bill passed, told Hamodia…that she was proudest of this law.”

“One member of Agudath Israel who was involved in every aspect of the law said that Ms. Weinstein had gradually taken a deep personal interest in helping pass the bill.…she actually helped draft the language with ideas how to do it and what to do.”

After the bill passed, the New York State Catholic Conference came out in favor of it.

Siegle singled out for praise Monroe County Assemblyman Stephen Hawley, a former school board member, who recognized the intolerable burden the bill would place on school districts and voted against it.

Siegle felt that the hurry of the last day did not excuse all those legislators who voted for the bill without reading it.

As soon as the news got out, the public education community and other good-government groups raised an outcry, and the governor vetoed the bill. In his veto message, he listed many of the civic groups who objected to the bill.

Siegle said she asked Senator John Flanagan, who had sponsored the bill in the Senate, whether he would back a similar bill. Flanagan said he would not support that bill.

No legislator has tried to override the governor’s veto.

Fast Work Repels Vouchers

With quick action, the friends of public education fought off a March attempt to create a federal voucher program.

U.S. Senators Lamar Alexander and Rand Paul proposed to change Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the basic law providing federal education aid to poor children, into a voucher plan.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) Legislative Director Maggie Garrett heard rumors of a March 22 Senate floor vote on vouchers little more than two days before the event.

On March 21, Alexander and Paul declared in a press release that their measure would direct $4.5 billion in existing Title I funds to “follow low-income children to any accredited school, public or private.”

AU co-chairs the National Coalition for Public Education (NCPE), a coalition with more than 50 member organizations.

Garrett arranged for a letter to the senators from NCPE. Leaders of NCPE’s member organizations talked with particular senators ahead of the vote. They called on their individual members to contact their own senators.

On March 22, Alexander and Paul introduced their scheme as an amendment to a budget bill. On that day, the Senate considered dozens of measures in a marathon session. Leadership limited remarks on any one bill to just two minutes.

On the floor, Iowa Senator Tom Harkin spoke against the scheme.

He said, “We have tried this before. The District of Columbia has a voucher program that we passed in Congress in 2003. And guess what they have found since 2003? It made no impact whatsoever on student achievement, and now the program is to the point it is being phased out.”

The Senators defeated the plan, 60-39.

N.Y. State Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand voted against
the proposal.

Mass. Supreme Court to Hear Pledge Suit

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) planned to hear in May a challenge to the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.

In February, the Court requested amicus (friend of the court) briefs from those who have a strong interest in the suit, but are not parties to it.

The Lowell Sun reported that the SJC, in its call for briefs, described the case as identifying “important issues of state constitutional and statutory law concerning the daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.”

Backed by the American Humanist Association (AHA), an unidentified atheist family has charged the Acton-Boxboro Regional School District with religious discrimination.

The family argues that the words “under God” in the Pledge violate the equal rights amendment in the Massachusetts Constitution.

It also contends that the daily recital of the Pledge constitutes unlawful discrimination, because the recitation endorses a religion.

Roy Speckhardt, AHA president, wrote, “By tying patriotism to God-belief, public schools not only cast a cloud of suspicion over atheists and humanists, but they make it impossible for atheist-humanist children to meaningfully participate in the daily exercise of the Pledge of Allegiance.”

Acton-Boxboro Superintendent Stephen Mills wrote, “For both students and teachers, participation in the Pledge of Allegiance is totally voluntary.”

In June 2012, Middlesex Superior Court Judge Jane Haggerty upheld the Pledge. She called it a patriotic exercise, not a prayer. She ruled that the phrase “under God” was not a religious truth.

Geoffrey Bok, Boxboro’s lawyer, wrote in his brief, that if the SJC limited the Pledge, “It would establish an unprecedented right of any student or parents to block public school teachings that are offensive to their religious beliefs, even if the alleged offensive teachings are made totally voluntary.”

The case is Doe v. Boxboro.

New Funds for N.Y. Catholic Schools

After its March lobbying trip to Albany, the website of the New York State Catholic Conference (NYSCC) reported, “Lawmakers provide $4.5 million in a new funding stream to our schools for safety equipment—in response to the horrific school shootings that have occurred around the country.”

The NYSCC represents the Bishops of New York State in matters of public policy.

Every March, the NYSCC organizes a lobbying trip, with a wish list, to the N.Y. State Legislature.

This year, the lawmakers had committed additional funds for public school safety measures as part of the gun control bill, so the NYSCC sought money for Catholic school safety equipment.

In preparation for lobby day, the NYSCC advised its supporters to send this letter:

“I am outraged that the needs of Catholic schools and our families are being ignored while additional efforts are being made to support public schools. For example, the funds you already committed for school safety projects apply only to public schools and do nothing to address the safety of children in Catholic schools. Does the safety of our students not matter?”

The Catholic schools got the money. The phrase, “new funding stream” implies that the NYSCC considers this aid an entitlement, and plans to lobby annually for it.

KY Won't Bankroll Religious Coercion

“Our mission is to provide care and hope for hurting families through Christ-centered ministries. I want this mission to permeate our agency like the very blood through our bodies. I want to provide Christian support to every child, staff member, and foster parent,” wrote William Smithwick, president of Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children in 1998.

Kentucky assigned needy children to the Baptist Home’s care and paid it $10-$15 million annually.
In May, as the result of a thirteen-year legal battle, Kentucky agreed to ban religious discrimination, coercion, and proselytization in the child care agencies it supports.

It established a system to monitor the agencies closely, especially the Kentucky Baptist Homes, now renamed Sunrise Children’s Services.

As defined in the settlement, “Proselytize or proselytization shall mean an affirmative attempt to induce a child to convert to a particular faith against the wishes or without the knowing and voluntary prior consent of the child.”

Sunrise did not agree to the settlement, and tried to block it.

The Commonwealth of Kentucky settled with taxpayer plaintiffs, Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the ACLU of Kentucky.

In the course of the litigation, Kentucky hired a private contractor to monitor programs that served children, and the contractor provided abundant evidence of religious coercion.

The state cancelled the scrutiny in 2008, but it will now resume.

Under the settlement, the state must consider whether the children or their guardians object to placement in a sectarian facility and make reasonable efforts to provide alternatives.

Agencies contracting with the state must not discriminate against any child on the basis of religion or pressure children to take part in religious worship or instruction.

Agency personnel must not place religious symbols in children’s rooms without their consent. They may give religious materials only to children who request them.

Kentucky must prepare an anonymous exit survey for each child. Surveys must ask if the child experienced religious coercion, discrimination or proselytization during placement. Public officials must investigate any such allegations and take action.

Case workers must question children about the agency’s religious activities and accommodations and document the children’s responses. If a case worker thinks the agency has religiously coerced, discriminated, or proselytized, the worker must report the matter to appropriate officials, who must investigate and take action.

For seven years Kentucky officials must provide the surveys and caseworker reports from Sunrise’s clients to the plaintiffs’ counsel.

Kentucky officials must tell the plaintiffs’ counsel about the investigation of any complaint against any agency. If an agency becomes the subject of such an investigation, the plaintiffs’ lawyer should get the surveys and caseworker reports for that agency as it does for Sunrise.

This suit, Pedreira v. Kentucky Baptist Homes, did not begin as an effort to reform the Kentucky child-care system.

In 1998, Kentucky Baptist Homes fired Alice Pedreira because her “admitted homosexual lifestyle is contrary to Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children core values.”

When Americans United looked into her complaint, it uncovered a host of other church-state problems. The court ruled against Pedreira on her employment discrimination claim, but she remained the lead plaintiff in the suit. She now works for the Louisville city government as an educator on HIV prevention issues.

Louisiana Voucher Law Struck Down

In May, the Louisiana State Supreme Court struck down Louisiana’s voucher plan, because it pays nonpublic schools with funds dedicated for public schools by the state constitution.

The Louisiana constitution names the dedicated fund the “Minimum Foundation Program” (MFP).

Under the voucher program, 4,700 students have been paying public funds to attend private schools, and officials expected that number to increase to 8,000 by September.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune reported Governor Bobby Jindal’s response, “We’re disappointed the funding mechanism was rejected, but we are committed to make sure this program continues, and we will fund it through the budget.”

The Legislature controls the budget, and it may need persuasion.

Jindal held a pro-voucher rally on the capitol steps. He told voucher fans,

“I want you to share your stories with the legislators and others, inside this building. I know my friends in the Legislature, if they hear your compelling stories, they will join us, to make sure not only this program stays this year and next year, but this program continues to grow.”

The voucher scheme formed part of the 2012-2013 school funding act. The State Supreme Court declared the whole funding act invalid, because the House of Representatives had passed it with a simple majority under circumstances that required a two-thirds majority.

The ruling puts the 2011-2012 funding act into effect.

Louisiana Education Superintendent John C. White told reporters that the voucher rejection would send a refund of $12 million to Louisiana public schools. The reversion to the 2011-2012 act would send another $18 million to the public schools.

The Louisiana Federation of Teachers (LFT), the Louisiana Association of Educators LAE), and the Louisiana School Boards Association (LSBA) challenged the act.

The case is LFT v. Louisiana.

Voucher Victory Appealed

In February, a Colorado State Appeals court upheld a voucher plan adopted by the Douglas County school district.

The Colorado Constitution has strict and specific language forbidding state funds for sectarian schools, but two of the three appeals judges rationalized it away.

Judge Steve Bernard dissented strongly and would have struck down the voucher scheme.

He wrote “In my view, [the Colorado Constitution] prohibits public school districts from channeling public money to private religious schools. I think that the Choice Scholarship Program is a pipeline that violates this direct and clear constitutional command.”

In April, the plaintiffs appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court.

To distribute its vouchers, Douglas County created a bogus charter school: a single district employee in an office.

The fake charter school enrolled children already accepted at private schools and then delegated their education to the private schools. Practically all the private schools advanced religion throughout their programs.

The charter school then sent tuition checks to the private schools. The district employee made the checks out to the parents, but nobody could cash them until the parents endorsed them to the private schools.

Each check paid 75% of the state funds allotted to the district for the child’s education. The district kept the other 25%.

County Resident James La Rue sued, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the ACLU of Colorado, and Americans United for Separation of Church and state (AU).

Article IX, Section 7 of the Colorado Constitution says,

“Neither the general assembly, nor any…school district…shall ever make any appropriation, or pay from any public fund or moneys whatever, anything in aid of any church or sectarian society, or for any sectarian purpose, or to help support or sustain any school…controlled by any church or sectarian denomination whatsoever…”

The Appeals Court majority relied on two cases in which judges upheld state aid to sectarian Colorado colleges.

In one, the Colorado Supreme Court declared colleges less sectarian in effect than elementary and secondary schools.

In the other, a federal appeals court said the U.S. Constitution forbade Colorado to distinguish among sectarian colleges, so as to deny aid to the pervasively sectarian ones.

The plaintiffs have urged the Colorado Supreme Court to take the case, because the Appeals Court ruling renders meaningless the specific restrictions in the Colorado Constitution.

They point out that,

1. The Colorado Supreme Court decision specifically excluded elementary and secondary schools,
2. Article IX, Section 7 bars aid to all sectarian schools, without distinguishing among them, and
3. The U.S. Supreme Court allows states to enforce stricter separation of church and state than the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment.

The case is LaRue v. Colorado.

Judge Hears NH Tax Credit Suit

“There’s no dispute that some of the money under this program is going to go to a religious school without restrictions,” said Judge John Lewis of Strafford, New Hampshire Superior Court.

“The very first thing that’s being questioned is whether or not the money that’s used to fund tuition constitutes quote ‘money raised by taxation.’”

In April, Judge Lewis considered whether a state tax credit law violated the state constitution.

The law, passed in June 2012, allows businesses credits against state income taxes equal to 85% of the amount they donate to state-designated scholarship organizations.

The New Hampshire Constitution says, “No money raised by taxation shall ever be granted or applied for the use of the schools of any religious sect or denomination.”

The scholarship organizations may award scholarships to elementary and secondary schools, both public and nonpublic, and to pay for home-schooling.

In states that have such laws, the major scholarship organizations pay only for scholarships to sectarian schools.

New Hampshire’s lawyer, Richard Head, argued that the donated money is never paid to the state, so it is not raised by taxation.

Alex Luchenitser argued for the plaintiffs, “This program uses the tax system to deliver funding for the program. If there was no business profits tax, this program would not exist. The only way we can run this program is if a business owes the tax and chooses to divert some of the tax to this program.

Under questioning from Judge Lewis, Head conceded that if the business chose not to make the contribution, the money would go to the state.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) back the plaintiffs. Luchenitser is the associate legal director at Americans United.

Governor Maggie Hassan has tried to repeal the tax credit law, but the Senate has balked.

The case is Duncan v. New Hampshire.

Indiana Supreme Court Upholds Vouchers

The Indiana Constitution contains two sections that bar tax-raised funds for religious bodies. In March, the State Supreme Court interpreted away both of them to uphold an Indiana voucher law.

Article I, Section 4 says, “No person shall be compelled to…support any place of worship or maintain any ministry, against his conscience.”

The court said, “This clause is a restraint upon government compulsion of individuals to engage in religious practices absent their consent. To limit the government’s taxing and spending related to religious matters, the framers drafted Section 6.”

Article I, Section 6 says “No money shall be drawn from the treasury, for the benefit of any religious or theological institution.”

The Court held that the vouchers primarily benefited parents and children rather than religious schools. It said, “Any benefit that may be derived by program-eligible schools are ancillary to the benefit conferred on families with program-eligible children.”

The case is Meredith v. Pence.