America's Founding Fathers, born of the Enlightenment, knew they must protect the young country from the religious strife of the Old World, especially in matters of government.
Their First Amendment clause against government establishing religion or preventing free exercise of faith was general enough to allow each generation to find new interpretations of those few words, depending on new needs and sentiments. Mostly, it has worked to prevent religious strife.
Thursday, the Supreme Court continued that ebb and flow of interpretation by approving a Cleveland school-voucher program that lets taxpayer money end up paying for students to attend parochial schools. The program lets inner-city parents use vouchers at either private, charter, or suburban public schools.
The close 5-to-4 decision reflects a further conservative shift on the high court toward letting government programs of many types indirectly support religious institutions under certain conditions. The court has, for instance, endorsed government computer aid to public and private schools, and the use of public school teachers to tutor parochial students.
The conservative justices say such indirect aid to religions is constitutional if government remains neutral and fair in determining who receives the aid, and need not worry about where the aid ends up.
The pivot for their Cleveland decision was whether the program offered "true private choice." Even though most of the students ended up at Catholic schools, the five justices focused on the many incentives for parents to use nonparochial schools.
They found that "the incidental advancement of a religious mission, or the perceived endorsement of a religious message, is reasonably attributable to the individual aid recipients, not the government, whose role ends with the disbursement of benefits."
In essence, they say legislatures, not judges, are the ones who must decide if the effects of indirect government aid to religion serves a negative purpose, such as causing religious strife. The question is political, not constitutional. This decision passes the buck back to lawmakers to ensure vouchers are well-funded and broad enough to prevent taxpayer resentment at where their dollars are going.
So far, most Americans remain wary of school vouchers, concerned mainly that they may end a long tradition of public schooling that creates the bonds of a broad community.
For now, the court has opened a door to vouchers. Americans should be very wary of stepping so quickly through it.