Educational choice

Several years ago, I spoke with a priest from British Columbia. He mentioned that public financial aid furnished by British Columbia provincial sources goes to religious schools. It is a policy like others in Canada.

As in the United States, Canada constitutionally protects absolute freedom of religion. From the standpoint of numbers, the country is quite pluralistic, with many religions, Christian or otherwise, represented. (According to Our Sunday Visitor’s 2011 Catholic Almanac, 43 percent of the population is Catholic.) 

Don’t these funds granted by governments to provide Catholic education for some Canadian youths violate this principle? 

Canadian authorities generally would insist that they do not, believing that parents have the absolute right to educate their children as the parents choose. Because the state has the obligation to see that all children are educated, the state is required to assist citizens in meeting these parental responsibilities. The state respects the parents’ rights. This enhances freedom of worship as well as separation of church and state. It keeps the state from limiting religious practice. 

The United States is one of very few democracies with roots in Western civilization that does not see things this way. 

For many years, voices in this country have insisted that American public policy, either at the federal level or in individual states, includes provisions that tangibly respect the right of parents to decide how to educate children. “Tangibly” means providing some funds, somehow. 

Many possibilities have been offered. All have failed, until recently, either by not being enacted through the legislative process or by negative court rulings. 

The scene is changing somewhat. Several states have passed, or are considering, measures that would strengthen public support for this basic right. 

One of these states, Arizona, has allowed tax credits for parents of children not in public schools. Challenges to this provision were raised in the courts. In April, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear one challenge, although it acted on a technicality, not on any basic philosophy in the matter. 

Still, the challenges reveal a considerable and strong negative feeling against any use of public funds that, in the end, would assist religious schools. Resistance to any form of public support for the education of youths not in public schools is hardly dead. 

It is very important that the basic principles be kept well in mind. First, parents have the right to be the primary decision-makers in educating their children, and the state has no right to interfere unless the parents’ choice obviously harms the children. Second, the state has the obligation to assist in educating its young citizens, but it properly meets this obligation by supporting parents. Third, separating church from state is fundamental law for Americans; although this means that the state cannot fund any denomination, neither can it complicate or hinder the free exercise of the religion that citizens happen to choose for themselves. 

Hanging over everything these days is governmental financing. The treasuries of the U.S. government and many states are in trouble. Governments cannot spend for very long what they do not have. 

Given the fact that public education costs so much, and since it is a public duty, funding is a question to consider when it comes to any program. 

But arguing against provisions such as the Arizona statute by decrying violations of the No Establishment Clause, and in the process setting aside parental rights, is not appropriate.  

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.