The right-wing theocrats and other conservatives trying to privatize the public education system in the name of Jesus got another wake-up call in Colorado this week. The Centennial State’s highest court has laid down the law: anyone wanting to send their kids to private, religious schools is going to have to shell out for it themselves.

For years, “school vouchers” have been touted as a way to provide parents with choices, giving them the means to send their children to private schools. Aside from its clear role in the conservative agenda to dismantle public education and turn it over to the private sector, it is also an end-run around the Establishment Clause.

Or is it just a coincidence that more than three-quarters of private schools are affiliated with church organizations? This information comes from the U.S. Department of Education, which also tells us that the vast majority of private school students  – 80% – are enrolled in these religious schools.

According to Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the role of private religious schools is to indoctrinate, not educate. That should come as no surprise; it is what organized religion has been doing for thousands of years. The problem is people decided a few hundred years ago that they were sick and tired of inquisitions, holy wars and self-styled prophets, priests and shamans controlling their lives and beliefs. It is why the First Amendment explicitly states that Congress shall make no law “respecting an establishment of religion.” We’ve seen what happens with that.

Good conservative families and the right-wing school board of Douglas County haven’t quite gotten the message that the rest of us have moved on. For years, they’ve been attempting to impose educational “reforms” – with some help from our old friends, their Imperial Majesties Charles and David Koch. Teachers unions, as well as progressive families and civil liberties organizations, have been pushing back just as hard.


Now, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with wanting to indoctrinate children with a specific set of religious beliefs; parents have every right to raise their children in their own faith. They just have no right to expect the rest of us to pay for it.

That was the message sent by the Colorado Supreme Court this week

Aid to private schools, churches, sectarian purpose, forbidden. Neither the general assembly, nor any county, city, town, township, school district or other public corporation, shall ever make any appropriation, or pay from any public fund or moneys whatever, anything in aid of any church or sectarian society, or for any sectarian purpose, or to help support or sustain any school, academy, seminary, college, university or other literary or scientific institution, controlled by any church or sectarian denomination whatsoever; nor shall any grant or donation of land, money or other personal property, ever be made by the state, or any such public corporation to any church, or for any sectarian purpose.

Supporters of the voucher program are whining that they are being “discriminated against” on the “basis of religion.” An appeal is already in the works: Michael Bindas, an attorney at the Institute for Justice who represented the defendants in the Colorado case, plans to address the question of  “whether a state can specifically target and exclude” religious schools from voucher programs. At the same time, other states are continuing with voucher schemes that funnel public, taxpayer funds into private, religious schools. Disturbingly, the U.S. Supreme court previously upheld the use of public funds to pay tuition at private religious institutions.

Given its recent rulings, however, on conservative issues like same-sex marriage and election districting, it’s anyone’s guess how the present case will play out if it makes its way to the Supreme Court. But the opening shots have been fired – and the latest battle for separation of Church and State has begun.



K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.