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Church/State Complexities

Church/State          Complexities

In addition to "entanglement," the other key church/state controversy revolves around the question of public tax dollars going to religious institutions. As part of the legislation expanding Milwaukee's voucher program to include religious schools, the schools must abide by a provision in the voucher statute that gives parents the right to have their children "opt out" of "any religious activity," and prohibits voucher schools from requiring voucher students to attend such activities if their parents have exercised that right in writing. In the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling, the religious "opt out" clause was cited as evidence that the voucher program "does not have the primary effect of advancing religion," and therefore is constitutional.

The "opt out" issue recently came to the fore when People for the American Way Foundation and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People filed a complaint against 17 religious voucher schools with the State Department of Public Instruction, charging that testers posing as parents were told by some voucher schools that opting out was not practical. The complaint, which is under investigation, also alleges violations of two other regulations: charging fees prohibited by law and failing to select voucher students at random.

The complaint was filed by William Lynch, an attorney who represented the Milwaukee branch of the NAACP in its unsuccessful efforts to stop the voucher program. Lynch said that, to date, no students or their parents had complained of violations of the opt out provision. "But the fact is, religious opt outs are not very feasible," he said.

PUBLIC/PRIVATE CONFLICTS

Thus far, religious schools in the voucher program have been able to fulfill both their educational and religious missions with the help of public tax dollars. While this situation seems ideal, it may only be a matter of time before religious schools will have to confront the complications likely to arise when church agencies take public money.

Allen said he believed many private educators had embraced "this notion that you can take public money and escape accountability" without considering the ramifications of their decision.

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