Vail Daily columnist Jack Van Ens: Church-state issue with schools? |

Vail Daily columnist Jack Van Ens: Church-state issue with schools?

Jack R. Van EnsVail, CO, Colorado

Choice is a right Americans cherish. The government can’t dictate that we worship or refrain from worshipping. Nor can Uncle Sam direct citizens toward preferred forms of worship. Individuals exercise these choices.Can a case based on choice be made for a public school district granting vouchers to parents? They, in turn, may use these funds to enroll their children in private schools. Or does such policy collapse the wall of separation between church and state that Thomas Jefferson and James Madison erected?Choice has become a sacred right for the school board in one of the nation’s wealthiest enclaves, Douglas County, Colo. In a fair and balanced article (Wall Street Journal, Friday, Aug. 5, p. A2) Stephanie Simon describes how Douglas County has advanced a pro-choice educational agenda.”Indeed, the Douglas County system embraces school choice, already offering charter, magnet, and online schools,” writes Simon. “Officials there say the vouchers are a logical next step, helping parents to access different types of education, including faith-based schooling. ‘It’s about parents being able to decide what’s best for their children,’ said Meghann Silverthorn, a school-board member.”About 20 private schools in the area accept vouchers. They’re a diverse lot, though predominantly religious. A tiny secular academy serving a few dozen first- through eighth-graders; a Jesuit high school with nearly 1,600 students; a church-based school that touts its curriculum as ‘unabashedly creationist’ and Bible-based.”Before we get carried away with how the Douglas County School Board wants to exercise choice about schools, doesn’t a prior concern Thomas Jefferson and James Madison posed need attention?These founding fathers warned that choices leading to a cross-over between church and state often debilitate the republic, even leading to religious wars.On New Year’s Day, 1802, Jefferson answered a request from the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut. These Baptists felt their rights were tramples on because Calvinists called “Congregationalists” held massive political and religious power. Jefferson, in his letter to them, repeated what the 1st Amendment in the Constitution states: that Congress is barred from making any “law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This clear provision, Jefferson asserted, was an “expression of the Supreme will of the nation” to build a “wall of separation between Church and State” on behalf of “rights of conscience.” This wall was strong, not porous. Respecting it, President Jefferson refrained from issuing Thanksgiving Day proclamations.Using this phrase about a “wall of separation,” Jefferson protected guaranteed rights citizens held and their consciences nurtured. The government shouldn’t intrude on them.Madison, the prime architect of the Constitution who laid legal planks for the 1st Amendment, wrote Episcopalian Jacob Jaspers in 1833. This clergy had preached a sermon on separation of church and state. Madison advocated that a “line of separation” was drawn in the 1st Amendment between “the rights of Religion & the Civil authority.”Madison’s line was thick, like Jefferson’s wall. Both metaphors suggested that our republic would thrive with minimal cross-over between religion and the state. Late in life, Madison wrote a summary of his views: “And I have no doubt that every new example, will succeed, as every past one has done, in shewing that religion & Govt. will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.” Madison and Jefferson were suspicious of citizens who desired to weaken the Constitution’s Establishment Clause that prohibits church and state merging so that religion receives government aid. In recent decades, the Supreme Court has sometimes modified the high, impregnable wall which the judicial majority ruled as law in Everson vs. Board of Education (1947). Then the court denied the use of public funds for the support of parochial schools. Is the Douglas County School Board doing an end-around this ruling by giving vouchers to parents of students rather than granting them directly to private schools? These social conservatives who advocate choice can point to court rulings where it’s permissible for the state to contract with religious groups for some limited social services. Still, Jefferson’s caution must be heeded.Religious organizations protect their integrity when they refuse government money. The state, when it funds public rather than private schools, protects its mandate to not show preference to a particular religious tradition. The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (, which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores.

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