Utah diverts millions from public schools, reserves funds for private, religious education

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Across faith and place, all of us deserve the freedom to believe as we choose. An essential part of respecting each of our religious freedoms is public education, which brings together students of all identities, beliefs, and experiences. But on January 28th, 2023, Utah’s Governor Spencer Cox signed a bill into law that would establish the largest voucher program in the state’s history and divert $42 million from public schools.

Public Money for Public Schools 

In communities across the country, our public schools are entrusted with the development and well-being of children from diverse backgrounds and experiences. Their open doors bring students together in one place where all are welcome and none are turned away. Public schools depend on robust funding to ensure they can meet the needs of every child they serve. But in Spring 2022, the Supreme Court released a sweeping decision in Carson v. Makin, issued by a conservative bench in line with the Religious Right’s campaign to redefine religious freedom. The Court mandated that the state of Maine provide tuition assistance to families for private religious education. This outcome further advances a national campaign to erode the already blurred line between religion and government. 

The Court’s decision in Carson paved the way for bills like Utah’s establishing a major voucher program, undermining the separation of public money from religion. Public schools are places where all are welcome, and no student is turned away. Well-funded public schools are essential to ensuring every student is given the tools they need to thrive.

Voucher Programs Threaten Religious Freedom

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution includes two complementary protections – freedom of religion and freedom from religion. The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment guarantees every American the ability to make their own decisions about religion – to affirm, embrace, and practice the religion of their choice or refrain from participation as a matter of conscience and conviction. At the same time, the Establishment Clause ensures that federal, state, and local governments remain neutral in matters of faith.

To maintain the separation of religion and government, the government should not compel any citizen to furnish funds in support of a religion with which they may or may not agree. Many private, religious schools are unable or unwilling to separate the religious components of the education they offer in religious programs. For this reason, it is impossible to prevent a publicly funded voucher from being used to pay for explicitly religious activities. Utah is diverting funds from institutions that serve all students to schools that will use the money for religious purposes, and only serve some.

For many families, religion plays a central role in home and community life. While parents may choose a religious education for their child, they cannot insist that it be paid for by neighbors who may or may not share their religious beliefs. American public schools bring together students of diverse backgrounds and experiences, providing opportunities for all students to learn and grow. Public funds should support services that are open to all – not only the select few who meet a private school’s criteria.

Interfaith Alliance has a network of affiliates working across the country doing important work to protect religious freedom in states. Learn more about our state and local networks.