This week, the school-voucher referendum went down to a crushing defeat in Utah. It was a very ambitious proposal, covering absolutely everyone. Some supporters thought it too ambitious. In any event, the state and national teachers unions, plus other public-employee unions, predictably poured tons of money into a media blitzkrieg to defeat the measure. It was an off-year election when fewer voters turn out, giving a huge advantage to the unions that can organize turnout to protect their pocketbook and power. The best single article I’ve seen on the moral case for parental choice in education is " School Choice as Simple Justice ," published in First Things and written by Prof. John E. Coons of the law school of the University of California, Berkeley. But the moral case standing on its own is not enough to persuade the majority of voters. The moral case is focused on the plight of the disadvantaged, especially the urban underclass, mainly black and Latino, in our larger cities. Here in New York, as in other major cities, expenditure per student in the government schools has multiplied many times over, and still less than half the young people end up with a high school diploma they can read. A third of all black young men in the country will spend some time in jail. In the inner cities, that figure is well over half. The reality is that most parents in America are, wisely or not, more or less satisfied with the government schools that their children attend. They may have a twinge of conscience about their selfishness, but the teachers-union propaganda about vouchers taking money away from their own schools is powerfully effective. And, they understandably ask, whether caring about your own first is really selfishness or the exercise of parental responsibility. The brutal fact is that twinges of conscience can be easily stifled when they come up against self-interest. In any event, Utah is not a state in which the plight of the urban underclass is a pressing issue. Adam Schaeffer of the Cato Institute has been beating the drum for his argument that it is time to give up on voucher proposals and turn to tax credits as the way to advance parental choice. Perhaps he’s right, but there are a lot of questions to be asked. The most obvious objection is that tax credits are of little use to poor people who don’t pay much in the way of taxes. In Thursday’s Wall Street Journal , Schaeffer attempts to address that objection:
Tax credits for donations to scholarship organizations can help support school choice for lower-income families, and personal-use credits can help middle-class families. Tax credits reduce the amount a taxpayer owes the government for each dollar he spends on education. For instance, if a business owes the state $4,000 and donates $2,000 to a scholarship-granting organization, it would pay just $2,000 in taxes. Similar benefits for donations can be applied to individuals.
Tax policy is not my forte, but that sounds like an attractive proposition. But why just one half? If an individual or business owes the government $4,000 and gives the $4,000 to a scholarship program, does that mean nothing is owed the government? I expect many people would rather give their money to help poor children go to a decent school than give it to the government for whatever. But, even if it is only one half of the tax assessment that can be discounted, that is a powerfully attractive proposal. It is, I believe, premature to give up on vouchers. They have for years been doing some very good things in Milwaukee and elsewhere, and the Supreme Court has given a yellow light turning green to government funds for education, in the form of vouchers, that go to parents rather than directly to schools, including religious schools. And, as I said, Utah is hardly an appropriate testing ground for a national decision on vouchers. Nonetheless, I assume that Mr. Schaeffer and the people at the Wall Street Journal who publish him know something about tax policy. I expect others will be scrutinizing and fine-turning his proposal. Maybe tax credits is the way to go. But, however this discussion develops, the way to get the moral questions into clear focus begins with a careful reading of John Coons’ "School Choice as Simple Justice."


"We are right to take alarm at the first experiment upon our liberties," observed James Madison. That is especially the case when the experiment is on the first liberty of the First Amendment, which is the free exercise of religion. But I find myself in a minority position in taking more than just a touch of alarm at this week’s news that Sen. Charles Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, is launching an investigation into abuses by several ministries that are recognized as churches by the IRS and are therefore tax exempt. His particular targets are Creflo Dollar of World Changers Church International, Paula and Randy White of Without Walls International Church, Benny Hinn of World Healing Center Church, Joyce Meyers of Joyce Meyers Ministries, Eddie Long of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, and Kenneth and Gloria Copeland of Kenneth Copeland Ministries. Evangelical leaders I’ve talked with are not bothered by Sen. Grassley’s initiative. Some of them positively welcome it. They say these so-called ministries and churches are neither. In addition to these operators being blatantly heretical, I’m told, their health-and-wealth gospel is a fraudulent scheme to fleece the gullible and enable these hucksters to live high on the hog. One prominent evangelical tells me: "All power to Grassley if he can force them to clean up their act or go out of business. They give all of our ministries a bad reputation." Grassley has given these organizations until December 6 to provide a full accounting of how they raise their money and what they do with it. I can understand why some evangelicals welcome this investigation, but government oversight of the free exercise of religion is a very dicey business. Certainly the IRS is a government agency and the Congress has oversight of how it goes about granting tax exemptions, also with respect to religious organizations. I am prepared to stipulate, as the lawyers say, that the targeted outfits are as noxious as their critics claim. And I am sympathetic to Sen. Grassley’s observation: "Jesus comes into the city on a simple mule, and you got people today expanding his gospel in corporate jets. Somebody ought to raise questions about is it right or wrong." Certainly somebody ought to. And, in fact, the media, sundry religious leaders, and the general public have been vigorously raising those questions. But there will always be charlatans exploiting the gullible, also in the name of religion. The government surely must enforce measures against what is legally defined as fraud. But it makes one a little uneasy, verging on alarmed, when the government presumes to rule on what is or is not a false version of the gospel of Jesus. One might suggest that whether Benny Hinn needs a corporate jet or Joyce Meyer needs eight bedrooms in her house are questions best left to them and the people who are foolish enough to support them. The free-market approach to religion is not the most elevated way to think about the constitutional guarantee of the free exercise of religion, but it is not irrelevant. A government tax exemption is not, as some claim, a government subsidy. That claim is premised upon the incipiently totalitarian notion that everything belongs to the government and what it chooses not to tax is, therefore, a government subsidy. Rather, the free exercise of religion and the tax exemption required by such free exercise is premised upon the principle, repeatedly asserted by the Founders, that the supervision of religious belief and practice is none of the business of the government. I do not doubt Sen. Grassley’s good intentions. On the contrary, he is known as a man of unusual probity and competence. And where laws, including IRS regulations, have been violated, assiduous attention must be paid. But he and his colleagues are tiptoeing into a constitutional minefield. I hope they are in close conversation with competent authorities on First Amendment law. For their homework, members of the Senate committee might read a classic text by the late Dean Kelley of the National Council of Churches, Why Churches Should Not Pay Taxes . Kelley, too, was fond of quoting Madison’s maxim: "We are right to take alarm at the first experiment upon our liberties."


Now it has been announced officially. Prof. Mary Ann Glendon has been appointed by the president to be the United States ambassador to the Holy See. It is a brilliant choice. There will likely be some opposition. You might have expected the Boston Globe to report the news along these lines: "Professor Mary Ann Glendon, Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard University and recognized as one of the world’s leading authorities on human rights and international law, will be appointed ambassador to the Holy See by President Bush." You expected something like that? Silly you. Here is the Globe story : "President Bush plans to nominate Harvard University law professor Mary Ann Glendon to be his new US ambassador to the Vatican. Glendon, 69, is an antiabortion scholar and an opponent of gay marriage who has written about the effects of divorce and increased litigation on society. Her 1987 book, “Abortion and Divorce in Western Law,” was critical of the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that established a legal right to abortion." Apparently, the Globe is not pleased by the appointment. Critics have suggested that Prof. Glendon is too close to the Holy See. In recent years she has served as president of a pontifical council on the social sciences. Of course she will resign from that position, but the point pressed by the critics would seem to be that an ambassador should not be favorably disposed toward the state to which she is representing the United States. It is a novel notion of diplomacy. There is one downside to the appointment, however. The practice is that an ambassador should resign from organizations or publications that are engaged in advocacy. So Prof. Glendon will be resigning from the editorial board of First Things . We look forward to the great work she will be doing as ambassador for the United States. And we look forward to her returning to our board, but not, we hope, too soon.

Articles by Richard John Neuhaus

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