08/12/2011 11:46 am ET | Updated Oct 12, 2011

Demands of Aid to Religion Endanger Schools, Anger Moderates

Tight federal and state budgets at a time of heightened reliance by low- and middle-income families on available services would seem to make every taxpayer dollar for public education more precious these days. But this isn't the message received by many on the far right.

Religious conservatives in Washington and state capitols, following gains in the 2010 elections, are exploiting a tentative hold on political power to try to divert public money to religious school vouchers. In addition to siphoning millions from already strained taxpayer funds, voucher backers are taking aim at provisions of 38 state constitutions that prohibit aid to religious schools in order to advance their schemes. Call it adding more ouch to voucher schemes.

In Florida, for instance, religious conservatives and their chums in the legislature fought to put an amendment on the 2012 statewide ballot. They would repeal a provision of the state constitution that protects church-state separation in school funding and replace it with one all but requiring taxpayer funds go to religious schools that ask. The proposal is so radical even sponsors might wince at its consequences.

Far from closing ranks behind such crusades, other conservative and moderate Republicans are crying foul. They are demanding renewed focus on public education at all levels, as a proven engine of economic competitiveness and job growth, and defending "no-aid" protections in state constitutions that bar state funds for church activities.

"Anything that takes away from our public responsibility, including public education for disabled pre-schoolers, K-12 students, and those seeking higher ed degrees, is upsetting," says Sheila Frahm, former Republican U.S. senator and lieutenant governor of Kansas.

Frahm's state was one of the first to include a no-aid provision in its constitution, in 1858. The prohibition states that "no religious sect or sects shall control any part of the public educational funds." Such prohibitions exist in 37 other states, many implemented in the late 1800s when a similar drive for a federal amendment by Maine Republican senator James Blaine, echoing earlier support from President Ulysses Grant, came up just short of passage in the U.S. Senate.

The existence of these important protections for church-state separation hasn't deterred voucher proponents. They are taking aim at the provisions in order to allow taxpayer dollars to flow to religious schools.

"I hate to think about the dangers of a constitutional amendment," says Frahm, who remains active in the Methodist church. She served on her local school board, in Colby, on the state board of education, and in the state senate before holding statewide office.

In addition to its fallout on public schools, Frahm warns against the false allegations and social division that might accompany any drive to repeal the no-aid provision. In 1996, she faced the wrath of some religious conservatives in the Republican primary of the special election for U.S. Senate, which ended her brief stint as Bob Dole's appointed replacement and her career in elected office. After leaving the Senate, she served more than 12 years as executive director of the state community college association.

Like Frahm, former Connecticut governor and Republican U.S. senator Lowell Weicker takes a dim view of efforts by religious conservatives to tap public money for religious-school vouchers. "The reason for separation of church and state in America," says Weicker, "is because our nation's founders saw the awful toll of demands for religious tribute on taxpayers and tried to do away with such claims in the Constitution and its First Amendment. ... More death, destruction, and division in human society have their root cause in religious campaigns about government than just about any other basis."

Connecticut, where Weicker served in the legislature before three terms in the Senate and a single term as an Independent governor, is one of only a dozen states without an explicit barrier to public funds for religious schools in its constitution. But Weicker cites a landmark chapter in early state history in shaping state and federal policy and his own advocacy for church-state separation.

"Thomas Jefferson wrote his letter to Baptists in Danbury [Connecticut] in 1802 basically to tell them that federal law protected them from persecution by the majority Congregationalists." The letter articulated both the principle and the phrase 'wall of separation between church and state' at the core of the then-new republic.

Weicker's leadership on chuch-state separation includes blocking a bid by President Ronald Reagan in 1982 to amend the U.S Constitution to allow orchestrated sectarian prayer in public school classrooms and his refusal in 1993 to grant a state declaration for a Day of Prayer.

Weicker takes offense at pronouncements like Texas governor Rick Perry's, appearing to confuse or even to conflate church service and state service.

"I had been called to the ministry," Perry recently told donors in Texas, referring to elected office, according to meeting transcripts reported in July by the San Antonio Express-News. "I've just always been really stunned by how big a pulpit I was gonna have," Perry added, alluding to his position as governor.

Perry's spokesman today announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination for president. The donor meeting came before Perry's August 6 prayer vigil in Houston that included several far-right ministers and activists.

Efforts by Perry and others to undo the separation of church and state, meant to appeal to religious conservatives, are alienating a potentially large group of moderate voters who often have a decisive role in elections in presidential years. "All these so-called patriots ought to read their history," says Weicker. "Trying to substitute their preaching and agenda for governing has disastrous consequences."

Yet one positive outcome, says Frahm, may be a broader support base for protecting public education resulting from awareness of the attack on no-aid provisions. "When you can get honest information out to people, and when you counter the misuse of facts and soundbites with simple responses that make sense, people do take notice. Real fiscal conservatives like me respond positively to that."