Religious Hiring and State Religious Freedom Legislation

 US Supreme Court

In a blog post, the AJC’s Jay Bookman tried to use a case in Kentucky to raise the spectre of what might happen in Georgia if the legislature passed the “Preventing Government Overreach on Religious Expression Act,” its version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), passed by an overwhelming bipartisan Congressional majority in the 1990s.

Heavens to Betsy, Bookman argued, in Kentucky, a religious group is appealing to that state’s RFRA to insist that it has the same right to tourist development dollars as does any secular enterprise.  At issue is the effort of the group Answers in Genesis to build a theme park centered on Noah’s Ark.  The park will likely attract visitors to the region, and they will spend money at motels and restaurants near the park, as would tourists visiting Six Flags.  Answers in Genesis argues that it is entitled to state assistance in the same way as is any secular organization.  Their project should be considered for its economic development impact, just like any other project.  The state disagrees, as does Mr. Bookman.  His principal objection is that the organization is likely to require its theme park employees to sign a statement of faith, which means that the state would be providing funds to support an employer that engaged in discrimination on the basis of religion.

Answers in Genesis has filed a lawsuit in federal court, according to Bookman.  Right there he has a problem with the burden of his blog post.  If the organization is suing in federal court, the Kentucky law will be entirely irrelevant to that court’s decision.  Whatever happens in this case will have absolutely no value for predicting the effect of the Georgia law, as interpreted by Georgia courts.

But let’s take a step back and look at Bookman’s argument a little more closely.  Here’s his central contention, the premise that lies at the foundation of his position:

Let’s start the debate by pointing out that tax money and tax incentives shouldn’t be used to promote or advance a particular religious faith. I’d like to think that’s a bedrock principle that most Americans still support, although these days even that might be considered controversial in some quarters.

On one level, it’s hard to disagree with him.  If the First Amendment Establishment Clause and its state counterparts mean anything, it’s that no state should establish—provide public support for—a church.  But the Supreme Court has, in numerous cases, held that when religious organizations are seeking public funding, they need to be treated in the same way as secular organizations.  If they satisfy neutral criteria, established without reference to religion, then they are just as eligible for support as any other entity.  To deny religious groups this opportunity to compete for public funding on a level playing field is to engage in “viewpoint discrimination.”  Thus in Rosenberger v. Rector, the Court held that a student religious magazine at the University of Virginia was eligible for funding from the student activities fee, just as was any other student organization.  That public dollars flowed to a religious group did not imply an establishment of religion, as the Court understood it.  The religious group was just one among many receiving support.  The state’s thumb was not on the scale favoring religion over against secular alternatives.  Rather, to deny the group access to this funding would actually be hostile to religion.  If anything, the state’s thumb would be on the scale opposing religion.

The attorneys for Answers in Genesis know what they are doing.  They’re on quite solid federal constitutional ground in challenging the state’s decision to deny tax incentives available on the basis of neutral economic development criteria to all but religious groups.

And, as I have argued, if they win, it will have nothing to do with Kentucky’s RFRA, and will predict nothing about what will happen in Georgia.

But let me make one last point regarding an implication of Bookman’s argument.  If, as he contends, state and federal money should never go to an organization that uses religious criteria in hiring, then many of the cooperative relationships between government and charitable institutions would have to be torn asunder.  Colleges and universities that require statements of faith from faculty shouldn’t have access to federal money in the form of student loans and grants.  The Salvation Army wouldn’t be able to be one of the government’s largest partners in anti-poverty and workforce preparedness programs.  These organizations receive public funding not because they’re religious, but because they provide a valuable public service.  That service is evaluated, not by religious criteria, but by neutral public criteria.  To demand that they abandon their religious missions in order to be eligible for public funding is not neutral toward religion, but hostile.

Perhaps Jay Bookman means to be hostile toward religion.  I hope not.

The Current System is Failing Many of Our Children

Dejected Student - 640

According to the most recent data released by the National Center for Education Statistics this January, Georgia’s high school graduation rate is still one of the lowest in the nation at 72 percent, despite good improvement over the last two years. Only three states and the District of Columbia have a lower graduation rate than Georgia. Compare this to such states as Nebraska, New Jersey, North Dakota, Texas, and Wisconsin, which all have a graduation rate of 88, and Iowa which leads the pack at 90.

Georgia’s struggles don’t end with its graduation rate. Education Week released the latest report cards for each state this January in the categories of Chance-for-Success, School Finance, and K-12 Achievement in its 19th annual Quality Counts – Preparing to Launch: Early Childhood’s Academic Countdown. Georgia earned a grade of C-Minus and a ranking of 31st overall amongst the 50 states, based on its rankings of 37th, 31st, and 17th in each respective category. Georgia is below the nation as a whole, which earned a grade of C.

It would be one thing if Georgia ranked near the middle of the pack in a country whose educational outcomes far exceeded those of other developing countries around the world. However, when comparing how the U.S. education system stacks up on the international playing field, the results are not promising.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) assessed the competencies of 15-year-olds in reading, mathematics, and science in 65 countries and economies in 2012. Among the 34 countries who are members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the U.S. performed below average in mathematics, ranking 27th, and close to the OECD average in reading and science, ranking 17th and 20th respectively. According to PISA, U.S. students’ performance has not changed significantly over time despite the U.S. spending more per student than most countries.

So, what do these statistics teach us?

If Georgia stands in the middle of the pack when compared to other states in educating our children, in a country that is in the middle-to-the-back of the pack among developed countries, it’s safe to conclude that as a state we are failing to produce the level of excellence we desire for our children in an increasingly globalized economy.

Far too many students are stuck in failing schools that stifle them from reaching their full potential simply because their zip code affords them no other options. As a state, we cannot afford to let students spend another day in a failing school. The cost is too high individually and collectively.

Mediocre results call for a change in the status quo. Instead of keeping the same old system that is failing to produce the outcomes we hope to see, why not try a different strategy?

Education Savings Accounts – A Good Idea

Excited Student - 2

There is buzz under the gold dome about the potential for a bill proposing Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) for Georgia’s students and parents. ESAs have earned the praise of many as the “next generation of school choice.”

Here is a run down of how they work and their potential advantages: Parents who choose not to enroll their children into public schools full time can receive 100% of what the state would have spent on their children at a public school – a change that is revenue neutral for the State and gives freedom to parents. The Department of Education deposits funds directly into a privately managed bank account, which parents or guardians can access through a restricted-use debit card. Child-specific factors – such as disabilities – may determine the amount of money distributed into a family’s ESA. Parents or guardians can then spend the money on private school tuition, online learning curriculum, special education services and therapies, textbooks, and a number of other qualifying education-related services and providers. Furthermore, parents can save unused funds from year to year and roll the funds into a college savings account.

Parents and students can use ESAs to tailor education to their unique learning needs and interests.

This unbundling of educational services can allow for greater innovation and diversity, since it encourages a supply-side response that puts pressure on all facets of the traditional education system to be far more responsive to student needs, which amounts to a true student-centered education agenda.  ESAs promote a more market-based education system, creating incentives for producers and providers to try different ways of meeting the needs of students and parents.

Though Education Savings Accounts are still taxpayer funded, the way they are structured makes for a dynamic closer to the one involved in spending your own money on your own children: Parents still insist on the best quality education but have more incentive to find a bargain. ESAs constitute an improvement on traditional school choice programs for several reasons. Perhaps most importantly, parents have a strong incentive to maximize the educational value that their children receive in an ESA, because they are not required to spend it all at one place and in one lump sum.

The best way to enhance accountability and performance is to empower parents to choose the education that works best for their kids.

Two states have already adopted ESA laws – Arizona and Florida – and more are likely to follow in the coming years. These laws hold great potential to expand educational opportunity and improve the entire education system in ways that better and more efficiently meet the needs of children.