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The sad victory of misunderstanding

By John A. Ward
Arizona Daily Wildcat,
September 2, 1999

A little over a week ago in Cleveland, a federal judge suspended a 4-year-old school voucher program. Judge Solomon Oliver Jr., stated that Cleveland's school voucher program, which allowed poor kids to attend parochial schools at the tax payers' expense, was in violation of the First Amendment. Oliver stated that this program had the "primary effect of advancing religion."

The Bill of Rights, which was ratified 208 years ago, gave a greater sense of security to those who were leery of an overpowering government that would trample upon the "natural" rights of man.

When our founders created the Constitution, they did so in an attempt to maximize the liberties of the populous and to create a structure that would serve its best interest. Today, the spirit of the Constitution seems to be lost in absolutism, misinterpretation and indoctrination. Pragmatism and the best interest of the populous, seem to be lost in the shuffle.

The First Amendment states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion ."

This portion of the First Amendment has been misconstrued, misunderstood and cheapened in American history. History had taught the founders that religion was often not a personal choice, but the choice of the government. It attempted to rectify this problem and stated in an amendment to the Constitution that the government could not legally impose any religion upon its people. Unfortunately, this simple meaning has been contorted and misunderstood throughout our history.

Today, the First Amendment has been contorted to mean that government and religion must never coincide or ever meet in society. This misunderstanding of the First Amendment has led to rulings, and at times, a government that is inefficient, inflexible and does not serve the best interests of society. This was the case in Cleveland.

When the Dishonorable Judge Solomon Oliver suspended school vouchers, he denied many poor children a better education. Under the Cleveland voucher system, poor parents could opt to receive a "voucher" that was equivalent in value to the amount that it would cost to have their child attend a public school. The parents could then use the vouchers to pay for the cost of a private or parochial school which they thought would best serve their children's educational needs. They no longer had to send their children to the useless public schools that dominate this country.

When given this choice, many of the parents did choose to send their children to parochial schools. When asked why they chose to send their children to these schools, the vast majority of the parents said that it was the academic strength of these schools that was the biggest factor in their decisions. Many parents felt that it was perhaps the only chance their children would have had to keep up and compete with their more privileged counterparts. This was supported by a Harvard research study which showed that for students participating in the program, test scores and academic abilities noticeably increased while in the program.

Parents were outraged when the program was curtailed. They could not understand how the courts would do such an undignified and insensitive thing. How could the courts take away one of the only chances their children would have to make it in life? Almost unanimously, the parents of the affected children said that they would take drastic measures to keep their kids out of the public schools. One mother said, "I'll work 10 jobs before I send my kid back to a public school!"

The stewards of our government have failed our children, especially our most needy. Was the school voucher program in violation of the First Amendment? No.

Cleveland's voucher program did not force upon the people a specific religion as was the fear of the founders. By allowing our poor children to have educational choice, which may include parochial schools, the government does not impose religion upon us.

This type of misinterpretation and misguided indoctrination of the First Amendment does not serve the best interest of our society. In an attempt to maximize our liberty by separating church and state, our stewards of government have gone too far. They have delivered a perhaps-fatal blow to the lifelong success of our poorest members.

It is time for a wake-up call, when we get so caught up in reading too much into the words of our forefathers and begin to lose sight of the issues, like providing a future for our neediest children. We must never forget that the purpose of government is to serve the people.

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