My home state is one of a handful of states that provides dollar-for-dollar tax credits (up to a certain limit) for individuals and corporations that make contributions to student scholarship organizations, which in turn provide assistance to needy parents who wish to enroll their children in private schools. This program, pioneered by Arizona, withstood more than a decade of litigation before it was upheld by the Supreme Court in Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn.
The idea behind it is that since there’s such resistance–mounted largely by teachers’ unions–to education vouchers, encouraging the formation of private organizations that funnel private money to students attending private schools would promote school choice without running afoul of the often toxic politics connected with fights over vouchers.
No such luck, as the Arizona case demonstrates.
The latest tack–or should I say “attack”?–abandons the argument, long repudiated by the Supreme Court, that vouchers or tax credits violate the First Amendment Establishment Clause. Instead of focusing on the religious character of the schools, the critics call attention to their policies regarding homosexuality.
The [Georgia] program permits individual and corporate taxpayers to divert a portion of their state taxes—a dollar-for-dollar reduction in taxes—to provide public financing to private organizations called student scholarship organizations (SSOs). In turn, these SSOs provide funds to private schools for all or part of a student’s tuition.
This program of educational tax credits is providing public financing to a large number of private schools in Georgia that have draconian anti-gay policies and practices.
There are two easy responses to this line of argument. First, until my money enters the public treasury, it’s my money. The funds going to these organizations are not public funds, but private funds. They do not constitute state support for the schools, but private support, encouraged by the state (to be sure), for needy families. As long as I’m able to give to a church that teaches traditional biblical morality, then there’s nothing wrong with my giving to an organization that provides scholarships to students attending schools that incorporate that morality in their missions.
The argument itself operates on the assumption that any income that is potentially taxable is, in effect, public money. If so, then there is no real difference between a tax credit and a tax deduction. Following this logic, the next step would be to attack the the tax deductibility of contributions to churches that adhere to the traditional biblical teaching regarding homosexuality. I have no doubt but that there are some who would love to make this very chilling move.
This is connected to the second response: the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause protects the rights of religious organizations to disseminate their faith and its moral teachings. To deny people the opportunity to make a contribution to the faith of their choice is to deny their religious freedom.
We need go no further than to say that the state tax credit program is available to all eligible scholarship organizations; it does not favor one or another kind of organization. The dollars go wherever the donors direct them. In turn, the scholarships go wherever the parents direct them. It is quite a stretch to claim that this is public support of the sort asserted above.
It is, however, not at all a stretch to regard this complaint as a serious attempt to encroach upon religious liberty.