Written by Don Byrd
Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship (ESA) program provides taxpayer money for parents to use toward private school tuition, including for religious schools. Currently, the program applies only to certain categories of students including those in struggling schools and students with disabilities. SB 1431 would expand the program to apply to all students by the 2020-2021 school year.
In 2009, the Arizona Supreme Court found a voucher scheme unlawful because it provided government funds directly to religious schools in violation of a provision in the state’s constitution barring government aid to religion. By sending funds to parents first instead of directly to religious schools, Arizona courts have found ESA programs lawful despite similar church-state concerns (parents can only use the money to pay for private school expenses, including for religious schools).
The Baptist Joint Committee has long opposed school voucher programs, and defends the rights of states to prohibit government aid to religion in an effort to avoid church-state entanglements. The rights of parents to choose religious education for their children should absolutely be protected, but taxpayers should not be forced to pay for it. Church-affiliated education should not rise and fall on the basis of government support. That is not a good relationship for either the taxpayer or the church. (see Jennifer Hawks’ column, “School Vouchers Threaten Religious Autonomy“)
Courts may have found quasi-voucher programs like Empowerment Scholarships do not violate state law, but that does not mean states should enact them. Declining such a financial relationship between the state and the church helps to maintain important distance between them, which is good for both, and protects religious liberty for all.