The Bar-On Brief: Debate over secularity exposes issue’s complexity

The Bar-On Brief: Debate over secularity exposes issue’s complexity

Photo by Angie Yang | Daily Trojan


Religious institutions have flourished in the United States precisely because they are not intrinsically tied to the government. On average, Americans are far more religious than adults in other wealthy countries. According to a 2018 Pew Research study, this country is the only one with above-average GDP per capita and above-average frequency of daily prayer.

Yes, many legislators have religious motivations, but as a whole, religious leaders are separate individuals from political leaders. No church has punitive power over citizens, and the laws of the Bible are not binding on individuals unless they also exist in the secular legislative statutes. In other words, separation of church and state is beneficial to both society and religion.

But how long will it exist? Whether the president makes a religious comment, a senator invokes his religion as justification for a decision or the pope announces a policy change, it seems that the separation between church and state is eroding quickly. One such erosion is the question of whether public tax dollars should be used to fund religious schools.

This was the issue at hand when the Supreme Court heard oral arguments late last month in the case of Espinoza v. Montana. A 2015 Montana law provided tax credits to families who sent their children to private schools, including religious ones. As a result, public funds were indirectly being used to fund religious schools. The legislature passed a law preventing the program from operating with religious schools, effectively barring those schools from participating in the tax credit program. Religious school families then sued, claiming religious discrimination.

The central problem generates the following two questions: Can public funds be used to fund private religious schools? Can the state allow funding of some private institutions but not others on the basis of religion?

The First Amendment in and of itself causes some problems. The Establishment Clause, which prohibits the government from valuing one religion over another, conflates with the Free-Exercise Clause, which allows all individuals to practice their religion free from government discrimination.

On one hand, using tax dollars to fund a religious school essentially establishes a connection between the government and a religion. But perhaps just as compelling of an argument is the discrimination point based on the Free-Exercise Clause: The government is refusing to fund a school just because it is religious in nature.

Constitutional arguments aside, this case uncovers a lesson that has long been neglected in public discourse: Both sides have valid arguments. There is not a question of morality or character of either party in this action.

Both sides of this issue raised concerns that, if looked at objectively, are real causes for grievances. While the sentiment against Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos runs high in California, it may be eye-opening to look at the case from her allies’ perspective before shunning any of their positions as being “voucher schemes” or attempting to indoctrinate American youth, as some groups wrote in their amicus briefs to the Court. In fact, making such arguments shows a lack of understanding of the entire issue.

Consider the following similar scenario: USC is a secular institution and does not consider itself a religiously-affiliated school. It logically follows that tuition money should not be spent on religious education. That said, there are numerous religious organizations on campus, and they, like any other student organization, have the right to apply for funding from the Undergraduate Student Government. Therefore, USC is using tuition to fund religious organizations. That’s the plaintiff’s position in the Espinoza case.

It’s easy to write off an opponent’s arguments as nefarious. However, perhaps increased political polarization has indoctrinated popular culture into believing that political opponents do not truly want what is best for the country. Americans may disagree with proponents of public funding for religious organizations, but they should refuse to attack their character and dismiss their entire argument on moral grounds.

Ultimately, the merits of the arguments will be decided by the Supreme Court. Nevertheless, simple conversation and debate can dispel many of the ad hominem attacks made by both sides. It’s unfortunate these conversations are not happening.

Shauli Bar-On is a junior writing about sociopolitical issues. His column, “The Bar-On Brief,” runs every other Tuesday.