Written by Don Byrd
House Bill 168 passed first reading in the West Virginia House of Delegates, after it was narrowly advanced by the House Finance Committee on a 12-11 vote, according to the Gazette-Mail. The measure would create a system of private school tuition tax credits that could be used for religious education. As the report notes, however, the bill would allow tax credits to be used for schools that discriminate on the basis of religion. If enacted, the state would effectively be subsidizing, through tax credits, religious discrimination.
Is that provision likely to be changed so that tuition credits can’t be used for schools that discriminate on the basis of religion? Maybe…and maybe not. Here is a telling excerpt from the Gazette-Mail report:
House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Shott, R-Mercer and lead sponsor of the bill, said the exclusion of anti-discrimination protections for sexuality and religion was “probably an oversight.”
“I don’t think we intentionally — we modeled that after the Oklahoma bill, it certainly wasn’t intended to be that exclusive,” Shott said.
But he didn’t commit to supporting an amendment that would say the bill couldn’t benefit schools that don’t offer those protections.
Sen. Rollan Roberts, R-Raleigh, leads a school, Victory Baptist Academy, that he said doesn’t accept students who aren’t from Christian families….
So, maybe not an oversight after all?
In other states, tax credit scholarships used for private school tuition have been challenged as running counter to state laws that prohibit aid to religion or religious education. A ruling by the Montana Supreme Court striking down such a program is being appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. But West Virginia seems to have no similar provision in its laws barring the state from providing indirect aid to religious institutions. Even if state law does not pose a barrier on religious liberty grounds, that does not make this kind of program a good idea from a perspective of protecting religious freedom for all.
BJC has long opposed school vouchers and similar funding mechanisms that provide taxpayer support for religious education. Private religious education should be privately funded. That protects taxpayers from subsidizing a religious perspective that may conflict with their own, and protects religious institutions from entangling relationships with the state that jeopardize their autonomy and prophetic voice. For more on why school vouchers, are a bad idea for both the church and the state, see this 2011 column from BJC General Counsel Holly Hollman.
You can read West Virginia House Bill 168 here.