Why Some Religious Schools Should Get Government Grants

| by Nik Bonopartis
High School Students In New Mexico's Las Cruces Public School DistrictHigh School Students In New Mexico's Las Cruces Public School District

Lots of people pay for things they don't like.

Teachers have to pay dues for unions even when they back candidates and policies individual educators don't support. Catholics, Evangelicals and Muslims fund contraceptive services with their tax dollars. American taxpayers support countries like Egypt and Israel, the beneficiary of billions in U.S. aid.

According to The Jewish Week, New York taxpayers have funded millions in technology grants for Haredi Orthodox schools that don't have computers, and forbid their students from using technology. Where the money goes, no one knows.

Enter Ecclesia College in Springdale, Arkansas, a private college with about 170 undergraduates, reports Cappex. In its mission statement, says it aims to produce "effective leaders to strengthen the foundations of society through the life and values of Christ."

The college received about $600,000 in government grants in the 2013-2014 school year, a fact that didn't sit well with the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, a nonprofit church and state watchdog.

Because five of the college's seven offered majors are theologically based, and the school says it approaches its entire curriculum from a "biblical perspective," FFRF successfully lobbied the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District to stop awarding grants to Ecclesia.

"Taxpayer money should not be used to subsidize religious entities," FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor wrote in a statement after the Arkansas agency agreed to stop providing the grants to Ecclesia.

That was the right call.

But cutting off funding from all religious schools is not the right call, and eligibility for government grants should be determined on a case-by-case basis. Some religious institutions provide services that can't be replicated to communities, especially economically challenged communities. Many of them have religious roots, but don't proselytize or include religion in their core programs.

Schools with, say, a Catholic tradition but a secular curriculum should not be disqualified from receiving government aid if the money will benefit students and won't be used to advance religion. Likewise, grants with specific purposes -- whether they're helping to fund athletics, campus technology, music programs or secular studies -- should be open to all schools that serve their communities.

The problem is that the Supreme Court hasn't been clear on the issue, instead using an almost century-long patchwork of often-conflicting decisions to answer the question of whether government aid to religious schools is constitutional, according to Pew Research Center.

"The U.S. Supreme Court has been grappling with the issue of government aid to religious schools since 1930," Americans United for Separation of Church and State noted. "The court's jurisprudence in this area has spawned a long line of decisions, but the rulings have not always been consistent."

In other words, even legal scholars can't do much better than a Magic 8 Ball when it comes to predicting how the court will rule in individual cases. One of the few reliable indicators is that jurists have generally approved government funding when it's clear the money benefits students directly, not the schools. Whether or not taxpayers "like" funding the schools doesn't factor into the court's decision.

Because of the uncertainty, schools might not put up a fight when grants are challenged, and government officials who dispense federal and state aid may be more cautious about helping religious schools.

In seemingly cut-and-dried cases like Ecclesia, where there isn't much of a secular curriculum to speak of, it might not matter. But courts -- and church-state watchdogs -- should remember that there are good religious organizations providing everything from education to nutrition to disadvantaged kids, and if those institutions are forced to shutter, there won't be others to take their place.

Click here for the opposing view on this topic.

Sources: FFRF, Cappex, The Jewish Week, Pew Research Center, Americans United For Separation of Church and State / Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

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