By Don Byrd
Congress passed and President Donald J. Trump signed the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2017 into law on May 5, funding the government through September to avoid a budget impasse and government shutdown. Included in the deal were some funding provisions of religious liberty interest.
The law includes $45 million to continue the D.C. school voucher program. President Trump celebrated the voucher funding by making an unscheduled appearance at a White House event for D.C. students hosted by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
Like other school voucher programs, the D.C. scholarships initiative sends taxpayer funds to pay for tuition at private schools, including religious schools. Parents have the right to choose a religious education for their children, but religious teachings should be funded by voluntary contributions, not through compulsory taxation.
The new law also includes funding for international religious freedom efforts, including:
• $10 million from the Human Rights and Democracy Fund, to be allocated in consultation with the yet-to-be-named Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom
• $10 million from the Economic Support Fund to “protect vulnerable and persecuted religious minorities”
• $5 million to implement “a plan for transitional justice, reconciliation, and reintegration programs for vulnerable and persecuted religious minorities” in Iraq and SyriaPlus, the law contains additional funding authorization for the development of an “international religious freedom curriculum,” for “humanitarian assistance for vulnerable and persecuted religious minorities, including victims of genocide designated by the Secretary of State and other groups that have suffered crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing” and for international broadcasting on “the condition of vulnerable and persecuted religious groups.” The president is also required to “review and identify non-state actors” in countries that have “engaged in particularly severe violations of religious freedom.”
See Division E, Title IV in the Act for details on the school voucher program; Division J, Title VII, Section 7033 has more on the funding for international religious freedom programs.