Tag Archives: discrimination

Vouchers And Religious Discrimination

Can you stand one more rant about the un-American motives and consequences of school voucher programs?

I’ve been following a case that was filed last year in North Carolina. So far as I have been able to tell, it is still working its way through that state’s courts. The Raleigh News and Observer reported on the filing last July, noting that seven North Carolina parents had partially based their claim that program was unconstitutional on the fact that it provides funding to schools that engage in religious discrimination. 

The program has been controversial since it was launched in 2014. Supporters say it gives parents more choice in educating their children. Opponents say it siphons millions of tax dollars away from public schools each year and requires little accountability from private schools that receive the funds. 

The Complaint identified the parents as state taxpayers who have school-age children who can’t use the vouchers at certain private schools due to their religious beliefs, their identities or their sexual orientations, and the suit alleges that public funds are supporting schools “that divide communities on religious lines, disparage many North Carolinians’ faiths and identities, and coerce families into living under religious dictates.”

Another story, from the Citizen Times, documented the accuracy of those assertions.

In 2017, Elizabeth Meininger, a police officer in Fayetteville, went to enroll her two young children at Berean Baptist Academy, a local private school.

Elizabeth and her wife, Kate, liked Berean’s curriculum and felt its small class sizes could challenge their daughter and son, who seemed to be overlooked in their large county school system.

The Meiningers’ combined income qualified them for North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarships, a $4,200 public voucher they could put toward covering private school tuition. With the voucher, Berean was affordable — less than half the price of a non-religious private option like Fayetteville Academy.

Yet soon after Elizabeth and Kate started Berean’s application process, the school informed them it wouldn’t accept their children. According to Elizabeth, school officials said Berean only accepted Christian families and the Meiningers couldn’t be Christian if they were gay.

Elizabeth and Kate subsequently discovered that, every year, Berean took in hundreds of thousands in taxpayer dollars through the North Carolina voucher program. The paper further reported that of the eight schools that had received the most Opportunity Scholarship money last year, six had explicit policies against students or parents who are homosexual, transgender, and gender non-conforming.

It gets worse: Many of the schools taking taxpayer money use a “science” curriculum that teaches the earth was created six thousand years ago, in six days, by God. In science class.

In the 2019-2020 school year, North Carolina doled out $48 million in scholarships–money that would otherwise have been available for the state’s public school systems. The schools benefitting most from this largesse clearly feel no compunction to hide their discriminatory policies. According to the article, Berean took in $855,877 in vouchers in 2019, the second highest amount in the state, and as part of its published school policy, “factors in” students and families’ sexual orientation and gender identity.

Another religious school, Liberty Christian Academy, received $651,641 in 2019-20, the third-most in the state. The school lists “participating in, supporting, or condoning sexual immorality, homosexual activist, bisexual activity” as reason for denying or removing students. Yet another–Northwood Temple Academy– took in $500,000. Its website cites biblical passages supporting its anti-gay policies.

The tax dollars being sent to these discriminatory schools–dollars being used to indoctrinate American children into very unAmerican attitudes–come from all North Carolina’s citizens–including those who are Muslim, Jewish, and gay and transgender, despite the fact that few if any voucher schools will accept their children.

it’s hard to disagree with Craig White, a bisexual man who works at the Asheville-based Campaign for Southern Equality, who is quoted as saying  “I should have the right to see my tax dollars not go to an institution that labels me as an abomination.” 

The challenge is based on North Carolina’s state constitution. But even if this program doesn’t run afoul of that charter, it is terrible public policy.

Before we had reams of research showing that voucher programs do not improve academic outcomes, it may have been possible to justify support for vouchers as a mechanism allowing poor children to escape failing public schools. But not only have we seen that those children do no better–and often worse–academically, we have seen legislators substantially raise the income limits for participation. 

Welcome to the new “Christian” version of the old segregation academy…

 

 

 

The Equality Act

Those of us who follow such things remember that Joe Biden endorsed same-sex marriage before Barack Obama did. (It is highly likely that Obama held that pro-equality position well before he was ready to publicly announce it, but his public position was undoubtedly  accelerated by Biden’s pronouncement.)

Now, Biden is reassuring the LGBTQ community that he will move swiftly to protect gay equality.

As president-elect, Biden is making sweeping promises to LGBTQ activists, proposing to carry out virtually every major proposal on their wish lists. Among them: Lifting the Trump administration’s near-total ban on military service for transgender people, barring federal contractors from anti-LGBTQ job discrimination, and creating high-level LGBTQ-rights positions at the State Department, the National Security Council and other federal agencies.

It’s impossible to disagree with Biden’s observation that Trump and Vice President Mike Pence “have given hate against LGBTQ+ individuals safe harbor and rolled back critical protections.” (Let’s be candid: the Trump/Pence administration has encouraged hatred against all people who are “other”–defined as not white Christian straight male.)

There is, of course, a limit to what can be done through executive action, and Biden has said that his top legislative priority for LGBTQ issues is the Equality Act.

The Equality Act was passed by the House of Representatives last year, but–surprise! not— stalled in the Senate. It would nationalize the comprehensive anti-bias protections already in place in 21, mostly Democratic-governed states, protecting against anti-LGBTQ discrimination in housing, public accommodations and public services.

According to the AP report at the link,

Biden says he wants the act to become law within 100 days of taking office, but its future remains uncertain. Assuming the bill passes again in the House, it would need support from several Republicans in the Senate, even if the Democrats gain control by winning two runoff races in Georgia. For now, Susan Collins of Maine is the only GOP co-sponsor in the Senate.

The Equality Act is opposed by the usual suspects, who are screaming that equal rights for gay people are “special rights” and an intrusion on their “religious liberty.”

These defenders of discrimination based upon the religious beliefs of some–certainly not all–denominations remind me of a long-ago committee hearing I attended in the Indiana legislature. That body was “considering” (note quotes) a bill that that would extend some measure of civil rights to gay Hoosiers. If my memory is correct, that bill was offered every session for several years by then-State Senator Louis Mahern, and just as routinely defeated. (Louie is a friend of ours, and once shared  a letter he’d received from a Hoosier “Christian” pastor, informing him that as a result of that advocacy, the pastor’s congregation was praying for Mahern’s painful death…)

In the hearing I attended, another Indianapolis pastor, now deceased–Greg Dixon, of the Indianapolis Baptist Temple–testified. He informed the committee that his bible commanded him to stone gay people (“sodomites”), and that any effort to prevent him from following that biblical command was an unconstitutional invasion of his religious liberty.

So there!

Every time the government proposes to eliminate discrimination against marginalized populations, we hear the same refrain from religious fundamentalists. The 1964 Civil Rights bill was opposed by people who claimed that God wanted black and white people separated and women subordinated.

The benefit of separating personal and civic behaviors–giving government and religion separate jurisdictions–is that we can allow these unpleasant people to discriminate in their personal lives, but forbid their efforts to make their hatreds the law of the land.

There should be no religious privilege to behave in ways that we collectively deem destructive to our social health.

As I like to say, if you don’t like gay people–or Black people or Muslims or Jews–then you don’t have to invite them to dinner. Thanks to separation of Church and State, however, you can’t tell landlords they need not rent to them or restaurant owners that they need not serve them.

America has just voted overwhelmingly to elect a mensch. Let’s hope he can get the Equality Act passed.

 

 

Religion, Vouchers And The Court

I was sitting at my desk Wednesday when the news alert came across my screen. The New York Times was reporting on the most recent decisions being handed down the Supreme Court.

I will comment on the truly offensive decision in Little Sisters of the Poor tomorrow. Today, I want to address the decision allowing religious schools to discriminate in employment.

Here’s the lede:

The Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that federal employment discrimination laws do not apply to teachers whose duties include instruction in religion at schools run by churches.

The vote was 7 to 2, with Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor in dissent.

The court has been active in considering the relationship between church and state, generally siding with religious groups. It has ruled in recent years that a state must let a church participate in a government aid program, that a war memorial in the shape of a cross could remain on public property and that town boards may start their meetings with sectarian prayers. Last week, it said state programs that provide scholarships to students in private schools may not exclude religious schools.

The new cases considered another aspect of the church-and-state divide — what role the government can play in regulating religious institutions.

I have my reservations about several of these cases–not to mention my suspicions about the religious and ideological perspectives of the more conservative Justices–but I actually don’t disagree with this one.

What I do disagree with–strongly–is those “state programs that provide scholarships to students in private schools.”

I have written before about voucher programs. Not only have I blogged about them, but I’ve written academic articles explaining the multiple reasons these programs were ill-conceived to begin with, and  pointing out that–in addition to the substantial harms they have caused– they have failed to deliver the benefits they promised (they now have been functioning long enough to permit assessment).

They are also a scam. 

How wasteful/counterproductive is our state’s largesse to private (mostly religious) schools? Let me count the ways: the promised improvement in student achievement did not materialize; badly-needed funds are being diverted from the public schools that most Hoosier children still attend; taxpayers are subsidizing discrimination (schools getting millions of dollars are discharging teachers and counselors for the “sin” of being in same-sex marriages); and there are no requirements that recipients of vouchers teach civics.

In addition to all that, lack of oversight has facilitated a massive rip-off of Hoosier taxpayers. Doug Masson wrote a scathing summary of that problem last year after Chalkbeat reported on fraudulently inflated enrollment numbers at Indiana’s then-virtual schools.

Doug also succinctly summed up the actual motives of voucher supporters. The real impetus for voucher programs wasn’t the purported one: to allow poor children to escape failing schools. It was–and remains–threefold: to weaken teacher’s unions, subsidize religious institutions, and redirect public education money to cronies.

Also, a reminder: vouchers do not improve educational outcomes. I get so worked up about this because the traditional public school is an important part of what ties a community together — part of what turns a collection of individuals into a community. And community feels a little tough to come by these days. We shouldn’t be actively eroding it.

In Indiana, far from excluding religious schools from the nation’s largest voucher program, well over 90% of the schools receiving vouchers paid for by our tax dollars are religious. Some of those schools allow religious dogma to influence what they teach– creationism rather than science, for example– and a number discriminate against teachers and students on the basis of their theologies.

So here’s where I agree with the Court: if your church or mosque or synagogue wants to ensure the “purity” of your doctrine, fine. The Free Exercise Clause–as I read it, and as the Court has now read it–says okay. You don’t have to hire or retain employees who violate your religious tenets.

But as I read the Establishment Clause, your religious institution doesn’t get to do those things with my tax dollars.

So the Catholic Archdiocese gets to exclude trans kids from Catholic schools, and fire excellent teachers and counselors for the “sin” of same-sex marriage. Fine–but not with my tax dollars.

The case that was wrongly decided was Zelman versus Simmons-Harris. In that intellectually dishonest 2002 ruling, the Court pretended that the tax dollars going to vouchers were really being paid to parents, who would then exercise “independent choice.” That has never been the case.

There is now a substantial body of research confirming that vouchers are bleeding resources from our public schools (without improving student performance), eroding civic identity, benefitting religions in violation of the Establishment Clause, and– as a bonus– crippling teacher’s unions.

I’m all for letting churches and religious schools practice what they preach. However, I am adamantly opposed to having taxpayers foot the bill.

 

 

 

Pride In Indiana

Today is Pride Day in Indianapolis. The parade –which I always attend– will have well over 100 entrants, representing a wide variety of government agencies, educational institutions, churches and area businesses–a far cry from the few forlorn entries in the first such effort 25 years ago.

Among other things, Pride now celebrates the legal and social progress of the LGBTQ community, which has made great strides nationally over the last couple of decades. In Indiana, it will not surprise you to discover that such progress has been considerably more spotty; cities and towns have passed inclusive Human Rights ordinances, but the state as a whole is an embarrassment on this issue (as well as on so many others.)

The very different politics of cities and rural areas with respect to LGBTQ rights has recently been highlighted by the effort of Jim Merritt–a longtime legislator now running for Mayor of Indianapolis–to “cozy up” to the gay community, and to distance himself from his “perfect” anti-gay record in Indiana’s Statehouse. Our legislature has been gerrymandered to create districts dominated by rural voters, and Merritt has pandered accordingly.

He is not alone. Indiana’s legislature has stubbornly refused to pass an inclusive bias crime bill. Efforts to add four little words–sexual orientation and gender identity– to the list of protected categories in the state’s civil rights law have gone nowhere.

Two years ago, on this blog, I posted some revelatory statistics about the legal disabilities of LGBTQ Hoosiers. The laws that facilitated those statistics haven’t changed. Here’s a smattering of what I wrote then:

Approximately 133,000 LGBT workers in Indiana are not explicitly protected from discrimination under state law….  If sexual orientation and gender identity were added to existing statewide non-discrimination laws, 61 additional complaints of discrimination would be filed with the Indiana Civil Rights Commission each year. Adding these characteristics to existing law would not be costly or burdensome for the state to enforce.

Recent polling discloses that 73% of Indiana residents support the inclusion of sexual orientation as a protected class under Indiana’s existing civil rights law. That’s 73% in Very Red Indiana.

Major employers in the state have worked with civil rights and civil liberties organizations in an effort to add “four little words” to the list of categories protected under the state’s civil rights statute:  sexual orientation and gender identity. So far, the legislature has exhibited zero interest in doing so.

The public outrage over Pence’s RFRA led to a subsequent “clarification” (cough cough) that the measure would not override provisions of local Human Rights Ordinances that do proscribe discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. A number of city councils around the state promptly added those protections to their Ordinances, which was gratifying.

The problem, as the research points out, is twofold: municipal ordinances in Indiana don’t have much in the way of “teeth.” They are more symbolic than legally effective. Worse, for LGBTQ folks who don’t live in one of those municipalities, there are no protections at all.

The result: Only 36% of Indiana’s workforce is covered by local non-discrimination laws or executive orders that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. And that discrimination occurs with depressing regularity.

– In response to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 75 percent of respondents from Indiana reported experiencing harassment or mistreatment at work, 30 percent reported losing a job, 21 percent reported being denied a promotion, and 48% reported not being hired because of their gender identity or expression at some point in their lives.

– Several recent instances of employment discrimination against LGBT people in Indiana have been documented in court cases and administrative complaints, including reports from public and private sector workers.

– Census data show that in Indiana, the median income of men in same-sex couples is 34 percent lower than that of men married to different-sex partners.

– Aggregated data from two large public opinion polls found that 79 percent of Indiana residents think that LGBT people experience a moderate amount to a lot of discrimination in the state.

Four little words. Why is that so hard?

Today, at the parade and the event itself, the community and its allies will celebrate the progress that has been made.

Monday morning,  opponents of bigotry need to go back to work.

 

 

Follow The (Lack Of) Money

When conversations turn to questions about suspicious public policies, a favorite explanation is “well, follow the money.” The implication is that people who will benefit have “purchased”(or at least influenced) the policy in question.

We very rarely follow the lack of money, although underfunding government agencies and efforts is a time-honored way that lawmakers can pretend to be addressing issues that the public cares about–issues that they (or their donors or supporters) wish would go away.

This tactic is more obvious at the federal level, but it characterizes state politics as well. Recently, I attended a small meeting of professional women–including a few lawyers–who were concerned about the inadequacies of Indiana’s Civil Rights law and the state’s underfunding  of the Indiana Civil Rights Commission. The meeting was called after several attended a recent speech by a law school professor; she had enumerated the provisions of Indiana’s Civil Rights law that make it difficult or impossible to punish discriminatory behaviors–especially (but certainly not only) sexual harassment.

When I practiced law, the few discrimination cases I handled were filed with the EEOC–a federal agency. The EEOC has jurisdiction over workplaces with 15 or more employees. I was unaware that Indiana’s Commission has jurisdiction only over companies with 6 or more employees–if you are harassed or discriminated against in a workplace with 4 or 5 employees, or fewer, you are just out of luck. No remedy exists.

In cases of sexual harassment, even people who are “covered” under Indiana’s law have no incentive to bring a complaint, since our Commission can award only back pay–if the complainant was fired. No punitive or other damages, and thus no incentive for an employer to “straighten up and fly right.”

Not only that, but in order to have a case adjudicated in state court, the employer must agree to be sued. In writing. And religious employers (including religiously affiliated organizations like hospitals) are exempt. (Given the number of news stories about preachers who prey while they pray, I found this rather astonishing.)

A recent Law Review article put it bluntly:

Deviation from the administrative process is uncommon because the Indiana Code requires written consent from both parties before the civil suit commences. Nonetheless, in the unlikely event that a complainant obtains the respondent’s consent, another provision of the Indiana Code mandates that the case be tried by a judge, not a jury. Even if the employee wins the case, his damages are limited to “wages, salary, or commissions.” Furthermore, he cannot recover his attorney’s fees. Thus, the combined effect of these statutes unfairly biases state civil rights proceedings against complainants.

As appalling as I found these elements of Indiana’s law–inadequacies which evidently place us among the four least-protective states in the country–what really focused my attention on Indiana’s lack of commitment to nondiscrimination and fundamental fairness was the agency’s funding. The Commission is one of the most poorly funded state agencies, and its employees are among the most poorly compensated. If our state law were to be improved, and the Commission’s jurisdiction expanded, it simply wouldn’t have the capacity to hear the additional complaints. It can barely cope with its workload now.

What I learned at that meeting was that the persistent refusal of Indiana’s lawmakers to pass a hate crimes enhancement law is part of a larger pattern. Not only are we one of only five states without a hate crimes law, but previous efforts to add “four words and a comma” to our civil rights statute–to include sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of identities protected against discrimination–have also gone nowhere.

Our civil rights statute is among the four least protective in the country, and we significantly underfund the agency that is charged with enforcing the few protections we do offer.

Welcome to Indiana, the Mississippi of the North….