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How a recent Supreme Court ruling could affect America’s religious future

Government spending on education, and the schools that benefit from it, affects people’s religious practices.

Nikki Ward, principal of St. John the Baptist Elementary School, places an ash cross on one of her student’s forehead during The Skaggs Catholic Center’s celebration of Ash Wednesday with an all-school Mass at Juan Diego Catholic High School in Draper on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. The Mass was attended by the elementary school students, Juan Diego students and students from St. John the Baptist Middle School.
Nikki Ward, principal of St. John the Baptist Elementary School, places an ash cross on one of her student’s forehead during The Skaggs Catholic Center’s celebration of Ash Wednesday with an all-school Mass at Juan Diego Catholic High School in Draper on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. The Mass was attended by the elementary school students, Juan Diego students and students from St. John the Baptist Middle School.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Religious schools recently won big at the Supreme Court, gaining access to more public money. Their victory is cause for celebration for anyone worried about the future of faith, according to recent research.

That’s because government spending on education —and the types of schools that benefit from it — influence people’s religious practices. When states only share resources with public schools, kids miss out on opportunities to deepen their faith at a young age, said Lyman Stone, an adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who authored a new report on American religiosity.

Public schools “are not institutions of religious formation,” he said.

By expanding religious schools’ access to state funds, the Supreme Court likely made it easier for families to enroll at these institutions and avoid the secularizing force of public education, Stone said. Such a shift could boost religious engagement in the future.

“A really strong predictor of adult secularization in a given year is what share of children were religious 20 years earlier,” Stone said.

However, religious schools won’t be able to help combat secularization if they shut their doors before enjoying the benefits of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling, said Sister Dale McDonald, the director of public policy for the National Catholic Educational Association.

Several high-profile Catholic institutions, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s high school in Baltimore and Cristo Rey in New Jersey, which was widely praised for its efforts to prepare low-income students for college, have already closed due to shrinking budgets and declining interest in organized religion.

“Over the last decade, we’ve been losing close to 100 (Catholic) schools per year,” she said.

One meaningful win at the Supreme Court doesn’t change the fact that voucher programs are controversial or that many lawmakers don’t care about the future of religious schools, Sister McDonald said.

“Right now, school choice is a very partisan issue,” she said.

Funding laws

Those seeking public financial support for religious schools have always had a tough time making their case, according to Steven K. Green, director of the Center for Religion, Law and Democracy at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. Even 200 years ago, faith-based institutions were often seen as a threat to the public education system.

“When public schools came into being in the early part of the 19th century, the belief was that we needed to have one type of education and teach American values and common moral values,” he said. “People thought competing systems of schools, whether they were Lutheran or Catholic, would undermine the financial stability of common education.”

Over the course of several decades, dozens of states enacted policies barring private, sectarian schools from receiving taxpayer funds. Today, there are only two states without any provision limiting the flow of public money into religious institutions, Green said.

“There’s a longstanding tradition of not funding religious education,” he said.

There’s also long been an interest in reducing religion’s role in public schools, Green added. In the mid-20th century, government leaders started discouraging sectarian prayers and Bible reading during class, arguing that students would be better served by more unifying practices.

“In the 1950s, this idea of having one civic religion came into being,” Green said. School teachers and officials were encouraged to downplay religious differences and emphasize shared values instead.

The Supreme Court aided this societal push with a series of rulings on issues like school prayer. Their decisions made it harder to incorporate religious practices into the public school setting and, at the same time, harder for religious schools to access public funding, since the court upheld bans on government financial support for sectarian institutions, Stone said.

However, in the 1980s, the Supreme Court’s approach to funding laws began to change, Green said. In recent rulings, the justices have drawn a distinction between direct and indirect financial aid, and allowed religious schools to receive taxpayer money if it was earmarked for a secular purpose or passed from the government to families first.

With tax credits, scholarships or vouchers, “money flows to religious schools not because of the government’s choice but because of parents,” he said.

In a June 30 ruling in favor of religious schools, the Supreme Court said once again that it’s lawful to include sectarian institutions in scholarship programs. But the justices also went a step further, stating that laws that target punish schools for their religious status violate the Constitution, Green said.

The court did not strike down bans on sending state funds to religious schools “but it basically made them dead letter,” he said.

A more religious future?

The Supreme Court’s ruling doesn’t force states to create scholarship or voucher programs benefiting private religious schools.

However, it does make it more difficult for policymakers to exclude such institutions from funding programs that already exist and any that are created in the future.

“That’s a significant shift,” Green said.

The court’s decision could lead more families to take advantage of faith-based education, since, over the next few years, some will gain access to financial support that wasn’t available in the past, Stone said.

“The recent Supreme Court ruling moved the ball in a direction I like to see it moving. It gives families more options to choose an educational environment that matches their values,” he said.

It may help families even if states don’t create new voucher programs, Sister McDonald said. The Trump administration has been talking about launching a federal tax credit to encourage donations to school scholarship organizations. The court’s decision may push officials into action.

“The government’s presumption is that once families in states that have a private school scholarship program start benefiting from the tax credit, other states will be pressured to create their own,” Sister McDonald said.

If more kids end up attending religious schools, then the court will have at least created the possibility of a less secular future, Stone said. Research has shown that faith-based schooling increases the likelihood that a religious child will remain religious as an adult.

“Whatever environment you put your kids in, they tend to absorb it,” he said.

For the most part, public schools are very secular, due to a combination of past Supreme Court rulings and other historic trends. In that context, young people can lose sight of the value of religion, even if they’re hearing positive things about faith at church and at home, Stone said.

“Secularization mostly occurs during school years, particularly the secondary school years,” he said.

To be clear, expanding access to religious education is not a cure-all for declines in church membership, attendance and engagement. School is just one of the many environments that shape who children become, Stone said.

But expected changes to voucher and scholarship programs are still a step in the right direction, he added. The Supreme Court’s ruling will enable more families to sidestep the secular world of public education.

“We have to empower people to live in, create and sustain the kind of culture they want for themselves,” Stone said.

We also need to take steps to ensure that religious schools remain available to interested families, Sister McDonald said, adding that the country, as a whole, will suffer if faith-based organizations fail to survive.

Students at religious schools “receive a moral foundation,” she said. “That’s a huge contribution” to society at large.