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Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act has left a troubling legacy.
Religious schools were exempted by the RFRA fix. In 2015-16, $133.4 million in public tax money was awarded to religious voucher schools that can legally deny services under RFRA to students and families based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act was passed in 2015 with the strong support of Governor Pence.
Now candidate John Gregg wants to repeal RFRA and repair the damage done to Indiana’s reputation, while candidate Eric Holcomb supports RFRA.
I support John Gregg. We must not legally allow discrimination of any form in schools that receive public tax money.
Public schools do not discriminate and private schools taking public money must not be legally allowed to discriminate either.
[Please note: Indiana Code 3-14-1-17 says that government employees including public school employees may not “use the property of the employee’s government employer to” support the “election or defeat of a candidate” and may not distribute this message “on the government employer’s real property during regular working hours.” Ironically, the law does not prevent private school employees from using computers purchased with public voucher money to distribute campaign materials. Private schools now financed in part by public voucher dollars have retained all rights under Indiana’s voucher laws to engage in partisan political campaigns.]Religious Voucher Schools Exempted from the RFRA Fix
When the 2015 Religious Freedom Restoration Act was fixed to quell the national firestorm damaging Indiana’s reputation, religious voucher schools were left out of the fix.
When the fix (Senate Bill 50) said that providers could not refuse service to citizens, religious schools were specifically deleted from the definition of “providers” covered by the fix.
Religious schools that accept vouchers are the only entities exempted by the fix that receive public tax dollars.
This means that 297 religious voucher schools that received $133 million in public tax money in 2015-16 can legally deny services to students and families based on sexual orientation and gender identity while 9 non-religious voucher schools that received $1.3 million cannot. These financial figures are found in the Choice Scholarship Program Annual Report, Appendix C, issued by the Office of School Finance of the Indiana Department of Education on July 18, 2016,
Two Categories of Private Voucher Schools
Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the subsequent fix have created different legal rights for religious schools than for private schools that are independent and non-religious. Thus, private voucher schools must now be looked at in two categories: religious and non-religious.
How did this happen?
The Fix: Senate Bill 50 – The Details
You remember the crisis. Speaker Bosma and President Pro Tem Long said on the Monday before Final Four weekend in 2015 that RFRA needed to be clarified, and by Thursday of that week, Senate Bill 50 had been written, passed by both houses and signed by the Governor. The crisis was addressed. The Final Four and the difficult job of reputation restoration began. The state contracted with an out-of-state public relations firm to restore Indiana’s national and international image.
Have you read the hurriedly written Senate Bill 50, commonly known as the fix?
It added language to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) that begins:
“This chapter does not: (1) authorize a provider to refuse to offer or provide services, facilities, use of public accommodations, goods, employment, or housing to any member or members of the general public on the basis of race, color, religion, ancestry age, national origin, disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or United States military service;”That language reassured the outside world. Then it exempted religious schools!
It defined “provider” as:
“one (1) or more individuals, partnerships, associations, organizations, limited liability companies, corporations, and other organized groups of persons. The term does not include: (1) A church or other nonprofit religious organization or society, including an affiliated school, that is exempt from federal income taxation”Thus, churches and their affiliated schools were exempted from the fix.
Should Entities Getting Tax Money Have a License to Discriminate?
Churches do not get tax money to run their operations, so their omission was expected.
Church schools, however, that choose to accept Choice Scholarships (vouchers) get millions of dollars from the Indiana treasury, approximately $133 million according to the 2016 financial report on vouchers issued by the Indiana Department of Education in July 2016.
Leaving open the legal basis for religious schools to refuse to provide services when they are getting public money to provide those services is just wrong.
Should Religious Voucher Schools Be Excluded from the Fix When Non-Religious Non-Sectarian Voucher Schools are Not?
Senate Bill 50 puts voucher schools in two categories. Religiously affiliated schools are excluded from the fix and thus apparently retain legal standing to deny services under the law. Non-religious voucher schools under Senate Bill 50 are providers who must not deny services.
According to the listing of 306 private schools receiving state funding in Appendix C of the annual financial report on the voucher program issued by IDOE in July 2016, 9 private schools are independent and non-religious. They received $1.29 million in public tax money. The report lists 297 private schools with religious affiliation.
The report listed the total amount for vouchers awarded to all private schools as $134.74 million. When that total is reduced by the $1.29 million going to non-religious schools, the total amount going to religious schools exempted by the fix is $133.45 million.
The report is easily available on the IDOE website, listed under Choice Scholarships and dated July 18, 2016.
That the General Assembly would put these two groups in different legal categories regarding denial of services is both incredible and inappropriate.
The non-sectarian Evansville Day School in Evansville should not be given a different legal standing from the church-affiliated St. Joan of Arc School in Indianapolis as regards providing services to the general public. The General Assembly needs to fix this.
Do religious voucher schools have a license to discriminate? The General Assembly needs to fix the fix.
Can 297 religiously affiliated schools that accepted over $133 million dollars in Indiana tax dollars in 2015-16 deny services based on RFRA?
If this issue concerns you, contact legislative and gubernatorial candidates about allowing tax funded private voucher schools to legally deny services under the law.
This is truly a confusing and intolerable situation about private voucher schools which must be clarified by the General Assembly and by the next Governor.
I support gubernatorial candidate John Gregg, an advocate for public education, to lead the way to fix this.
Thanks for your strong advocacy for public education!
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Some readers have asked about my background in Indiana public schools. Thanks for asking! Here is a brief bio:
I am a lifelong Hoosier and began teaching in 1969. I served as a social studies teacher, curriculum developer, state research and evaluation consultant, state social studies consultant, district social studies supervisor, assistant principal, principal, educational association staff member, and adjunct university professor. I worked for Garrett-Keyser-Butler Schools, the Indiana University Social Studies Development Center, the Indiana Department of Education, the Indianapolis Public Schools, IUPUI, and the Indiana Urban Schools Association, from which I retired as Associate Director in 2009. I hold three degrees: B.A. in Ed., Ball State University, 1969; M.S. in Ed., Indiana University, 1972; and Ed.D., Indiana University, 1977, along with a Teacher’s Life License and a Superintendent’s License, 1998. In 2013 I was honored to receive a Distinguished Alumni Award from the IU School of Education, and in 2014 I was honored to be named to the Teacher Education Hall of Fame by the Association for Teacher Education – Indiana.