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The Theocratic Agenda Is Heading for a Statehouse Near You

Well-coordinated "faith-based" initiatives and anti-evolution lobbying in state capitols from New Jersey to Colorado signal a stealth national strategy by Religious Right organizations.
 
 
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Utah seems like a strange state to experiment with voucher subsidies for religious and other private schools.

Politically and culturally, the Beehive State is dominated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons). Seventy percent of the state's residents belong to the church. Most Mormons are content to send their children to public schools, where they are often released during the school day for religious instruction offsite. There aren't even many private schools in Utah.

Yet last month, the Utah legislature fast-tracked a sweeping voucher bill. It whipped through the House and Senate and was quickly signed by Gov. John Huntsman Jr. The measure contains no income cap and would offer vouchers ranging from $500 to $3,000 to virtually every student in the state. Regulation is light: Participating schools would have to enroll at least 40 students, provide results of standardized tests and submit to an outside audit once every four years.

What happened? Voucher opponents say it all boils down to one acronym: ALEC.

The letters stand for American Legislative Exchange Council. This shadowy, but well-funded organization of libertarian-oriented business interests, put Utah under a full-court press.

The Salt Lake Tribune outlined ALEC's strategy recently: "Gather lawmakers in one place (with taxpayer subsidies), establish first-name relationships, then hand out 'model' legislation co-written by -- guess who? -- corporate America."

The newspaper quoted Alan Rosenthal, Rutgers University professor of public policy, who said, "From the point of view of the corporations, they have devised themselves an extremely effective organization." (The group's budget is $6 million annually.)

The Tribune noted that Utah Senate Majority Leader Curt Bramble (R-Provo) is the state chairman for ALEC and that he traveled, on the taxpayers' dime, to ALEC functions in Chicago, Texas, San Francisco and Washington in 2005 and 2006.

Utah isn't the only state that faces a high-stakes battle over vouchers this year. Similar battles are brewing in Georgia, Texas and other states. These bills are examples of a new wave of attacks on separation of church and state in state legislatures.

The assaults are by no means limited to efforts to aid religious education. Other bills focus on issues like religion in public schools, controversies related to marriage, the display of religious symbols by government and the teaching of "intelligent design" creationism in public schools.

The spate of new state-based attacks on church-state separation is a stark reminder that the fight to maintain the wall of separation between church and state never ends. The outlook in Congress might be brighter in light of recent political changes, but many states remain roiling cauldrons of controversy.

"The states are always wildcards," said Rachel Joseph Marah, who has been monitoring legislative activity all over the country for Americans United. "Bills can pop up and begin moving with little notice. We always have to be on guard."

A recent survey by Americans United found bills threatening the separation of church and state pending in a number of states. A round-up follows:

Vouchers and tuition tax credits

Voucher advocates in Georgia are so desperate to pass a plan giving tax aid to religious and other private schools that they hope to sneak one in through the back door by exploiting a vulnerable population: students with special needs.

The measure, Senate Bill 10, also known as the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship Act, would allocate state money to students with disabilities, encouraging them to transfer to private schools.

When the measure was unveiled in January, Holli Cash, a member of the Cobb County School Board, was unimpressed.

Cash, whose daughter has Down's Syndrome, saw through the ruse immediately. By establishing vouchers for a sympathetic population, advocates could then expand the plan to encompass others.

"I think it's just another way to get vouchers for the chosen few," Cash told the Marietta Daily Journal . "It's just another voucher bill."

Cash noted that most private schools in the Atlanta area require testing for admission, and most aren't interested in taking on special-needs students.

Other opponents pointed out that some private schools offer therapies for special-needs students that are unproven and that these institutions tend to be lightly regulated.

The scheme may seem especially callous. Most parents of children with special needs are eager, after all, to get them the best education possible. Playing on these parents' concerns to gain a foothold for vouchers underscores the extreme measures voucher advocates are willing to employ.

Church-state separation advocates there say the fight in Georgia could have major implications. Voucher advocates, they fear, plan to use the special-education bill to force a test case in the state courts in an effort to drum up support for watering down the strict church-state separation language in the Georgia Constitution.

Efforts to overturn the language outright have failed in recent years, and voucher boosters may believe that a manufactured controversy over tax aid to religious schools in the courts will swing public opinion their way.

A similar strategy is unfolding in at least one other state -- Texas. Lawmakers there are pitching vouchers as a way to help students with autism and other special needs.

In addition, San Antonio businessman James Leininger is pressing the legislature to pass a law mandating that Texas take over a privately funded voucher program that he has run for the past 10 years.

Thanks to Leininger's persistence, voucher bills are a constant feature of the Texas legislature. He spent $50 million during the 2006 election cycle to aid pro-voucher candidates. Last month, Leininger and his backers arranged for thousands of parochial school students to descend on the capitol in Austin to turn up the heat on lawmakers.

The Austin American-Statesman described Leininger recently as "a quiet political force in recent years, shying away from public comment while giving pro-voucher candidates millions."

Aside from Georgia and Texas, at least a dozen states are considering bills that would establish voucher plans or offer tuition tax credits. They include Arizona. The state already has a voucher plan aimed at special-education students and students in foster care. The Arizona Capital Times reported in January that legislators are expected to push for an expansion of the program this year.

In South Carolina, a bill allocating vouchers for special-education students is pending. Late last year, a lame-duck session of the Ohio legislature passed a law expanding the state's voucher program by increasing the number of schools deemed academically struggling from 99 to 212. The new governor, Ted Strickland, is no fan of vouchers, meaning that the issue could resurface.

Based on bills introduced in previous years and measures that were pre-filed, staff members at Americans United expect to see bills offering tuition tax credits or deductions to private school patrons in Connecticut, Hawaii, Kentucky, Missouri, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York and Virginia. A bill that would subsidize private-school transportation costs is pending in California.

Some of these bills may be based on model legislation offered by ALEC. The corporate-run lobby sees states as a laboratory for its radical form of privatization of public services. (ALEC is so extreme it opposes the federal government's efforts to crack down on drunk driving by imposing a uniform blood-alcohol level on the states.) ALEC is offering model tuition tax credit legislation and voucher legislation aimed at children in foster care, based on the Arizona model.

The group's executive director, Lori Roman, is no stranger to church-state controversy. She formerly served as chief of staff at the faith-based office at the U.S. Department of Education. Previously, she oversaw school-choice programs for the department.

Faith-Based Initiatives

Several states are expected to see battles over expanding so-called "faith-based" initiatives or formalizing such offices.

A major fight is expected in Texas, where bills that would greatly expand the faith-based concept have been introduced in both the House and the Senate. The Senate version of the bill, S.B. 200, would expand the role of faith-based groups in programs relating to drug and alcohol abuse, marriage-enrichment programs and community revitalization.

Ohio governor Strickland has signaled an interest in restructuring faith-based efforts in that state. A report from Strickland's transition team has recommended that taxpayer-funded faith-based groups shift their focus from marriage-enrichment programs and efforts aimed at prisoners re-entering society to addressing poverty and children and families in the state. Some social conservatives are concerned about the move, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported.

Creationism/attacks on evolution

The National Center for Science Education in California expects to see several attacks on evolution in the states this year. Two states got out of the box early. In New Mexico, Republican state Rep. W.C. "Dub" Williams introduced a resolution saying public-school teachers should have "the right and freedom to objectively inform students of any scientific information that is relevant to both strengths and weaknesses" of evolution and protect teachers from reassignment for doing so, reported the Albuquerque Journal .

Williams' strategy is in line with the thinking of "intelligent design" proponents these days: Rather than promote creationism head on, they push laws designed to undercut evolution by making it appear that the theory is not sound scientifically.

The bill was tabled in the House on a 7-4 vote but a version remains alive in the New Mexico Senate.

A Mississippi bill that would have required public schools to teach creationism alongside evolution appears to be dead. House Bill 625 was introduced by state Rep. Mike Lott, a Republican, but was rejected by a House committee on Jan. 30. Public sympathy for creationism runs high in Mississippi, but legislators were probably aware that the Lott measure would run afoul of the 1987 Supreme Court ruling in Edwards v. Aguillard , which struck down a similar "balanced treatment" law in Louisiana.

In an effort to be proactive, some Montana legislators have put forth a resolution criticizing intelligent design, but the measure is not expected to pass.

Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, said he expects to see more proposed legislation attacking the teaching of evolution as the legislative year pushes forward.

"We would not be surprised to see anti-evolution legislation introduced in Alabama, Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and possibly Utah," Branch said. He added that in some states, notably Colorado and Utah, attacks on evolution are buried in larger measures that purport to protect academic freedom or freedom of religion.

Other church-state issues

At least two states are facing attempts to pass laws approving certain types of government-supported religion.

State Sen. Chris Buttars of Utah wants to pass a state law that he says will expand religious liberty. Critics say it will open a can of worms. S.B. 1171 would ostensibly prevent government from interfering with the free exercise of religion. Opponents say the measure is unnecessary because those rights are already protected by the U.S. and Utah constitutions. They believe Buttars, a longtime proponent of Religious Right causes, is trying to find ways to increase governmental involvement with religion under the guise of religious free exercise.

Buttars' bill passed the Senate Government Operations Committee in January.

Among the most galling measures is a proposed state constitutional amendment in Virginia. HJ 724, introduced by Del. Charles W. Carrico Sr., would amend the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, authored by Thomas Jefferson, to permit government-sanctioned prayer and the recognition of "religious beliefs, heritage, and traditions on public property, including public schools." (The language is lifted from a proposed federal constitutional amendment offered by former U.S. Rep. Ernest Istook of Oklahoma.)

In Kentucky, lawmakers will consider HR 4, a resolution that calls on Congress to pass a bill designed to make it harder for people to bring church-state lawsuits into the federal courts.

A similar but even more extreme measure is pending in Arizona. Sen. Karen Johnson, a Republican from Mesa, is sponsoring a bill that would bar state courts from being able to intervene in any cases that challenge "the acknowledgement of God as the sovereign source of law, liberty or government."

The bill, SCR 1026, is of dubious constitutionality. Nevertheless, Johnson insists she is serious. She told the Arizona Daily Star , "But we're supposed to have religion in everything -- the opportunity to have religion in everything. I want religion in government, I want my government to have a faith-based perspective."

Another strange bill has surfaced in New Hampshire. State Rep. Daniel Itse has introduced a bill that opponents charge would essentially ban clergy from performing same-sex commitment ceremonies.

Itse, who also backs a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, denied that is his intent. But opponents of the measure say they're flummoxed. Same-sex marriage is not legal in New Hampshire, although some clergy perform ceremonies for couples that are recognized only by those religious groups.

"I think it's meant to quash clergy who are talking about officiating at what they would define as a marriage and not caring whether or not the couple had a valid marriage license," Rabbi Richard Klein of Temple Beth Jacob in Concord told the Associated Press.

• • •

This preliminary list is by no means complete. As the year goes forward, Americans United expects to see more dangerous bills introduced in the state legislatures. Those that are not defeated may lead to litigation. Utah's voucher bill, for example, would seem a good candidate for court action. Two provisions of the Utah Constitution explicitly forbid diverting public funds for religious purposes. Several Religious Right groups, such as state affiliates of Focus on the Family, livid over last November's election results and the change of leadership in the House and Senate, are putting renewed emphasis on state legislatures.

In a recent message to supporters, Tom Minnery, senior vice president of James Dobson's Focus on the Family Action, cited the organization's work opposing stem-cell research in Missouri and legal abortion in South Dakota, both of which appeared on ballot referenda in November.

Although the outcomes were not favorable to the Religious Right, Minnery said he was cheered by the close votes and activism of the conservative Christian community. He vowed to continue the group's work in the states.

"The heart of it all is an informed electorate," wrote Minnery. "If church people understand the issues, and become motivated to act on what they know, they will turn this country around. The incredible swing in those Missouri polls and the stouthearted stand for life in South Dakota convince me of that. Yes, our side lost on both of these ballot measures, but, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, this was not the end, nor was it the beginning of the end; it was, rather, the end of the beginning. We will prevail eventually."

That vow, say staff members at Americans United, underscores that the Religious Right, despite political setbacks, never gives up. It's a reminder of why we shouldn't as well.

 
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