Steve Sachs Duke


Monday, September 06, 2004


The Alchemy of Parental Choice, Part II: Steve Wu comments on the post below, noting the distinction between a voucher program designed to achieve a secular goal (like improving education) and one designed to funnel government money to religious institutions, as an end run around the First Amendment.

I don't know anything about the relevant First Amendment jurisprudence, but on a moral level, I'm not sure what to make of this objection. For one thing, it seems like there will always be some secular goal that could reasonably be advanced by a voucher program. Assume that in a given town, which is overwhelmingly Catholic, there is only one public school and one Catholic school. A voucher program would thus be identical in practice to a direct subsidy of Catholic education. Even then, however, the Catholic school might be very good, with vouchers serving the secular goal of improving education for children; or the inter-school competition might be said to spur improvements in the public school, serving a similar goal; or families may just like the Catholic school better, serving a value-neutral goal of preference satisfaction. Why should it matter if the government intentionally uses the citizens as "middlemen," so long as those citizens remain free to shift their loyalties elsewhere? When governments offer food stamps, are they making their citizens "middlemen" for a subsidy to the food industry? If the parents place great value on a religious education for their children, and if their enhanced options would promote the general welfare, why should we be concerned at their use of facially neutral state aid for a religious purpose?

Of course, it could be claimed that the facial neutrality is irrelevant -- in this two-school thought experiment, it can only be used for religious ends. If the students don't go to religious schools, they lose the money. But then it's worth remembering that in the real world, where there are a wide variety of private schools in even mid-size towns (and where new ones can always be built, should the need arise), the choices will rarely be this stark. In fact, even in our two-school model, there's no reason why those families that prefer secular private education couldn't band together to fund a school of their own. If the demand for such a school is insufficient, that's hardly the fault of the government, which has already done a great deal to help such plans along. (Perhaps the First Amendment concerns rely on a picture of "taking" money from the public schools and "giving" it to the religious ones. The government, however, need not produce education at all in order to provide it. Why not view a voucher policy as a general subsidy for all types of education, with government entities--i.e., the public schools--competing alongside all others who manage to stay in business? Replacing a public-only system with a general-subsidy system could always be justified on secular grounds of utility maximization.) The same analysis would apply if the town possessed no charitable institutions other than the Church; a local tax deduction for charitable contributions would not be rendered illegitimate simply because of insufficient secular demand.

Steve also points out an email by Marv Lederman, who worries that Bush's drug counseling voucher plan may "assert[] the bona fides of religious means of addressing social problems, and . . . structur[e] an aid program precisely in order to facilitate the use of such religious means." Bush, according to Lederman, claims that faith-intensive programs work well, and should be supported for that very reason. I haven't had a chance to read through the cases he cites, but my initial reaction is that such a plan is designed specifically to achieve a secular goal -- namely a reduction in drug use. Bush's argument that religious institutions are more effective for this purpose, if true, would only make it more sensible for the government to allow religiously-inclined drug addicts to seek treatment there. Why should the "instrumental value of religion," if it exists, be off-limits to the recipients of government aid?




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