Vouchers would wrongly use taxes for schools with religious affiliations

by Bob Braun/Star-Ledger Columnist
Thursday, February 10, 2011, 2:13 PM
reprinted from the Star Ledger.

TRENTON – At recent Sunday masses, churches in the Newark Archdiocese showed a film urging parishioners to donate money to Catholic ministries, including schools. The voice-over on the film noted that Catholic education “conveys the message of Christ.”

That is, of course, appropriate. Catholic schools should convey the message of Christ — but the furtherance of that message should not be accomplished with public funds that come not only voluntarily from Catholics but also involuntarily through taxes from Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, other believers and non-believers.

I am Catholic. A graduate of a Catholic elementary and a Catholic high school. I contribute weekly to my parish, monthly to a Catholic hospital, and annually to my high school.

Voluntarily.

It is just plain wrong to use taxes to promote a religious message.

That is what the Legislature, at the urging of Gov. Chris Christie and political bosses in Camden and Essex County, are about to do within weeks, if not days.

Fear and hatred of Catholics has vanished in this country, mostly because of the contributions of immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Poland and other Catholic nations. No one winced the other day when nuns testified for the voucher bill and bishops sat in the direct line of sight of Albert Coutinho, the chairman of the Assembly Commerce and Economic Development Committee. We are now as American as apple pie. As Christie himself proves, Catholics are more than mainstream, they are in leadership.

But what if these were not Catholics? What if they were, oh, say, Muslims? What if, every time a nun extolled the virtues of Catholic schools, it was, instead, an imam promoting the values of the Quran in madrassas? What if, instead of helping Catholic schools convey the message of Christ, the bill — which it surely could — helped Islamists convey the message of Muhammad?

Why not? Yeshivas in Lakewood will get money from these vouchers. Why not Muslim schools? Will the architects of this bill help only some religions, not others?

While I might endorse the Catholic message, not everyone does — not even all Catholics. I’ve heard Catholic priests use pulpits to urge the defeat of marriage equality. I’ve heard them use pulpits to condemn abortion and birth control. Must all people, through their taxes, pay to endorse these messages — even if these beliefs offend the beliefs of others?

Wasn’t that issue settled by the First Amendment — and the specific ban on tax money going to religious ministries in the New Jersey Constitution?

The Senate voucher bill creates an $800 million, five-year “pilot” program, with much of the money, 25 percent, going, not to children “trapped” in failing urban public schools — as Christie likes to say — but to children already attending Catholic and other private schools.

It won’t go to the poorest, but to families at 250 percent of the poverty line — almost $65,000 for a family of five. Eligible children will remain eligible even if their circumstances improve — if, say, an unemployed parent gets a job and makes $100,000 or more.

If not all the available vouchers are used in the 13 target districts in this so-called “pilot,” then the legislation allows the money to be redistributed among now non-eligible districts. The public also will have to pay for the transportation of these students to their religious schools.

That’s what makes the “pilot” description of the program a joke. Once enacted and funded, will the state actually take vouchers away from children who receive them?

In a few days, the Christie administration must appear in court to justify why it cut public schools by $1 billion. In arguments before the state Supreme Court, Christie’s lawyers said the state simply did not have the money to pay for a mandated public school-aid formula.

Vouchers will reduce tax revenues by up to $800 million. If it’s true that New Jersey no longer has the money to support public schools, how in the world will it have the money to support private religious schools, whether they be Catholic schools, yeshivas, or madrassas?

I am a Catholic. Catholics should support Catholic charities and schools voluntarily. The church hierarchy should reorder its finances to keep urban Catholic schools alive — although, as former Essex Catholic students and alumni will attest — the Archdiocese’s record is not good.

But no Catholic — neither I nor Chris Christie — has the right to expect Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and non-believers to support our causes, convey our messages, involuntarily through their tax dollars.

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