With Millions in Assets And Hundreds of Attorneys, Christian Right Is Waging War on the Church-State Wall

Americans United for Separation of Church and State [1] / By Rob Boston [2] posted on Alternet.org, March 5, 2013

Excerpt

…officials at Stanford announced recently that they would open a “Religious Liberty Clinic” thanks to a $1.6 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation that was funneled through the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington, D.C.-based legal group that seeks to undermine church-state separation with arguments straight out of the Religious Right’s playbook.

The creation of such a clinic at one of the nation’s best law schools underscores the incredible growth, financial power and political influence of the Religious Right’s legal organizations… Today these outfits have multi-million-dollar budgets, hundreds of allied attorneys and remarkable clout in the halls of government. And they are pressing courts and elected officials to fund religious schools and other ministries, open public schools to coercive prayer and proselytizing, limit reproductive rights and gay rights and give organized religion special privileges generally.

Stanford officials have made it clear that the new clinic will push a conservative religious and political perspective.

“The 47 percent of the people who voted for Mitt Romney deserve a curriculum as well,” Lawrence C. Marshall, Stanford’s associate dean for clinical legal education, told The New York Times. “My mission has been to make clinical education as central to legal education as it is to medical education. Just as we are concerned about diversity in gender, race and ethnicity, we ought to be committed to ideological diversity.”

The clinic’s founding director, James A. Sonne, told The Times, “In framing our docket, we decided we would represent the believers. Our job is religious liberty rather than freedom from religion.”

Sonne is a former professor at Ave Maria School of Law, an ultra-conservative Catholic school in Florida founded by Domino’s Pizza magnate Thomas Monaghan.

A taste of things to come at Stanford may have been offered during a recent panel discussion at the clinic. The Times reported that Hannah C. Smith, Becket Fund senior counsel, asserted that church-state separation isn’t in the Constitution.

Smith, a former clerk for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, told attendees that Becket works to show “there are certain God-given rights that existed before the state. God gave people the yearning to discover him. Religious freedom means we have to protect the right to search for religious truth free from government intrusion.”

But Smith’s approach to religious freedom is quite different from the definition of attorneys who support church-state separation, and they worry about the burgeoning influence of the Becket Fund and its allies.

The Religious Right move toward legal power began in the 1990s. A turning point occurred when TV preacher Pat Robertson jettisoned a small legal group he had formed called the National Legal Foundation and announced the creation in 1990 of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ).

Named deliberately to tweak the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLJ was for many years the leading Religious Right legal group in the nation. Headed by Jay Sekulow, a Jewish lawyer who converted to evangelical Christianity after his private legal practice became mired in financial problems, the ACLJ collected millions from Robertson’s eager followers. Its aim was a frontal assault on the wall of separation between church and state…The Religious Right landscape really began to shift in 1993…

The Religious Right has even created law schools to train sympathetic attorneys…

The influence of these law schools shouldn’t be underestimated...Faculty for the Blackstone program includes discredited “Christian nation” advocate David Barton and two men – Gary DeMar and Andrew Sandlin – who are members of the extreme Christian Reconstructionist movement that seeks to replace American democracy with Old Testament “biblical law.”…Asserting that the United States was founded to be a Christian na­tion and thus the symbols are appropriate would be a non-starter in court, so these Religious Right attorneys instead insist that the symbols are merely part of an “open forum” or have a secular purpose such as educating the public about the historic origins of law…But the most prominent weapon in the Religious Right legal arsenal is the constant use of the term “religious freedom.” This phrase has a unique definition to Religious Right attorneys – it’s the right to tell other people what to do…tap into a rich vein of Islamophobia among the far right…Some Religious Right legal eagles seem to believe that religious freedom is only for Christians…Religious Right legal groups have argued that parents have a “religious freedom” right to send their children to private religious schools and that states are permitted to facilitate this through voucher plans…

Full text

Stanford Law School in California is a prestigious institution with a distinguished past. Founded in 1893, one of its first professors was a former president, Benjamin Harrison.

When the school opened new offices in 1975, another president, Gerald Ford, was on hand for the festivities. On its website, Stanford proudly calls itself “one of the nation’s top law schools.” U.S. News & World Report agrees and ranks the school number two in the nation, behind only Yale Law School.

It came as quite a surprise, then, when officials at Stanford announced recently that they would open a “Religious Liberty Clinic” thanks to a $1.6 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation that was funneled through the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington, D.C.-based legal group that seeks to undermine church-state separation with arguments straight out of the Religious Right’s playbook.

The creation of such a clinic at one of the nation’s best law schools underscores the incredible growth, financial power and political influence of the Religious Right’s legal organizations. Thirty years ago, fundamentalist Protestant and ultra-conservative Catholic political forces were represented in court by small, ill-funded and mostly ineffective outfits that few took seriously. They certainly didn’t have the clout to graft themselves onto major law schools.

Today these outfits have multi-million-dollar budgets, hundreds of allied attorneys and remarkable clout in the halls of government. And they are pressing courts and elected officials to fund religious schools and other ministries, open public schools to coercive prayer and proselytizing, limit reproductive rights and gay rights and give organized religion special privileges generally.

Stanford officials have made it clear that the new clinic will push a conservative religious and political perspective.

“The 47 percent of the people who voted for Mitt Romney deserve a curriculum as well,” Lawrence C. Marshall, Stanford’s associate dean for clinical legal education, told The New York Times. “My mission has been to make clinical education as central to legal education as it is to medical education. Just as we are concerned about diversity in gender, race and ethnicity, we ought to be committed to ideological diversity.”

The clinic’s founding director, James A. Sonne, told The Times, “In framing our docket, we decided we would represent the believers. Our job is religious liberty rather than freedom from religion.”

Sonne is a former professor at Ave Maria School of Law, an ultra-conservative Catholic school in Florida founded by Domino’s Pizza magnate Thomas Monaghan.

A taste of things to come at Stanford may have been offered during a recent panel discussion at the clinic. The Times reported that Hannah C. Smith, Becket Fund senior counsel, asserted that church-state separation isn’t in the Constitution.

Smith, a former clerk for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, told attendees that Becket works to show “there are certain God-given rights that existed before the state. God gave people the yearning to discover him. Religious freedom means we have to protect the right to search for religious truth free from government intrusion.”

But Smith’s approach to religious freedom is quite different from the definition of attorneys who support church-state separation, and they worry about the burgeoning influence of the Becket Fund and its allies.

The Religious Right move toward legal power began in the 1990s. A turning point occurred when TV preacher Pat Robertson jettisoned a small legal group he had formed called the National Legal Foundation and announced the creation in 1990 of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ).

Named deliberately to tweak the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLJ was for many years the leading Religious Right legal group in the nation. Headed by Jay Sekulow, a Jewish lawyer who converted to evangelical Christianity after his private legal practice became mired in financial problems, the ACLJ collected millions from Robertson’s eager followers. Its aim was a frontal assault on the wall of separation between church and state.

The ACLJ operates in tandem with a separate organization Sekulow had founded called Christian Advocates Serving Evangelism. According to its most recent IRS filing, the operation takes in over $40 million annually.

Even Sekulow’s critics admit that he’s an effective advocate. He has argued several times before the U.S. Supreme Court and helped pioneer a key legal Religious Right strategy of arguing that the government’s failure to extend certain benefits to religion is, in fact, a form of discrimination.

But Sekulow isn’t the only conservative Christian who jumped into the legal arena. In Florida, a conservative Seventh-day Adventist attorney named Mathew Staver started a small group called Liberty Counsel in 1989. The organization percolated along on a modest budget for a number of years before being subsumed into TV preacher Jerry Falwell’s empire in Lynchburg, Va.

Staver, who later converted to the Southern Baptist faith, now runs Liberty Counsel from Jerry Falwell Jr.’s Liberty University, where he also serves as dean of Liberty’s fledgling law school. It’s unclear how much Liberty Counsel spends because, remarkably, Staver claims the organization is a church auxiliary and refuses to make the organization’s finances public as other nonprofits are required to do.

Conservative Roman Catholics also started legal groups in the 1990s. The Becket Fund was founded by Kevin J. “Seamus” Hasson, and the Thomas More Law Center was formed by Richard Thompson with money from pizza magnate Monaghan.

The Religious Right landscape really began to shift in 1993, however, when a coalition of TV and radio preachers announced the formation of the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF). Radio preacher Marlin Maddoux pulled together figures such as James Dobson of Focus on the Family, Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association, Campus Crusade’s Bill Bright and D. James Kennedy of Coral Ridge Ministries to fund the ADF.

This band of politically active fundamentalists and “Christian nation” advocates conceived the ADF as a funding pool. The outfit would collect money from the legions of Religious Right donors and parcel it out to other groups that were active in court.

The ADF, which recently changed its name to the Alliance Defending Freedom, did that for a few years but soon began hiring attorneys and taking on litigation directly. Based in Scottsdale, Ariz., it took in over $46 million last year and had a network of volunteer attorneys all over the nation.

The Religious Right has even created law schools to train sympathetic attorneys. The best known is the law school at Robertson’s Regent University, although a new law school at Liberty University may eventually prove a contender. For conservative Catho­lics, Ave Maria School of Law in Naples, Fla., is a popular choice. (Another school with a far-right orientation, Pressler School of Law at Lou­isiana College, is in the works.)

The influence of these law schools shouldn’t be underestimated. The current governor of Virginia, Robert F. McDonnell, is a graduate of Regent Law. During the presidency of George W. Bush, Regent had a pipeline to the White House and federal agencies, and many of its graduates ended up with influential government positions, especially in the U.S. Justice Department. (One of them, Monica Goodling, a 1999 graduate of Regent Law, ran into trouble  after she went to work at Justice and was accused of favoring job applicants who were “pro-God in public life” and engineering the firings of several U.S. attorneys.)

Although it doesn’t sponsor a law school, the ADF offers a special “Freedom Legal Academy” for attorneys and summer training for law students called the Blackstone Legal Fellowships.

Faculty for the Blackstone program includes discredited “Christian nation” advocate David Barton and two men – Gary DeMar and Andrew Sandlin – who are members of the extreme Christian Reconstructionist movement that seeks to replace American democracy with Old Testament “biblical law.”

The goal of the program, the ADF states bluntly on its website, is to “recover the robust Christendomic theolo­gy of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries.”

The group boasts of a roster of more than 2,200 cooperating attorneys nationwide and ties to 300 “allied organizations.” The ADF claims it wins 80 percent of the cases it brings and cites 38 victories before the Supreme Court, although this includes lawsuits where the ADF’s involvement was limited to filings briefs or providing some funding. (Like the ACLJ, the group also does some work overseas and lists activity in 31 countries.)

In recent years, the ADF has aggressively urged pastors to openly violate  federal tax law by endorsing candidates from their supposedly non­partisan pulpits and even sponsors an annual day of law-breaking called “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.”

As Religious Right leaders built their legal machine, they became more sophisticated. The organizations that sprang up in the 1980s were famous for tilting at windmills, often taking on cases they had little chance of winning.

Robertson’s ACLJ learned from those mistakes. The group framed its arguments in the language of fairness and equal treatment and leaned away from claims its lawyers knew would go nowhere in the courts.

For example, the ACLJ and other Religious Right groups often argue in favor of religious symbols or Ten Com­­­mandments monuments on public prop­­erty. Asserting that the United States was founded to be a Christian na­tion and thus the symbols are appropriate would be a non-starter in court, so these Religious Right attorneys instead insist that the symbols are merely part of an “open forum” or have a secular purpose such as educating the public about the historic origins of law.

The same logic applies to other church-state disputes. Thus, Religious Right legal groups claim the purpose of prayers before public school events or government meetings isn’t so much to worship God as it is to “solemnize” the occasion.

But the most prominent weapon in the Religious Right legal arsenal is the constant use of the term “religious freedom.” This phrase has a unique definition to Religious Right attorneys – it’s the right to tell other people what to do.

Thus, the “religious freedom” of churches is somehow infringed if same-sex couples are given access to civil marriages. A conservative Christian student’s “religious freedom” is violated if his public school biology teacher instructs about evolution.

Most recently, Religious Right legal groups have employed this argument in a string of cases dealing with access to birth control. They are asserting that the “religious freedom” of business owners and corporations is violated if the government mandates contraceptive access through health insurance plans.

Ironically, some of these organizations can’t be bothered to stand up when real religious freedom is threatened and, in fact, take stands counter to that principle. The ACLJ spent much of 2010 attempting to block the construction of an Islamic center  in New York City, arguing it was too close to the site of the 9/11 attack.

The right of a religious group to build a house of worship on land it has purchased would seem to be a quintessential religious freedom is­sue, but the ACLJ chose instead to tap into a rich vein of Islamophobia among the far right.

Other Religious Right legal guns were mostly silent on the matter.

An anonymous ADF spokes­­person told Yahoo News blogger John Cook, “We’ve been asked by a few outlets. We’re not commenting.”

Some Religious Right legal eagles seem to believe that religious freedom is only for Christians.

On Sept. 11, 2010, Thomas More Law Center’s Thompson ran an incendiary column attacking Muslims and accusing them of seeking to “construct a victory mosque that towers over the ruins of the World Trade Center.” (In fact, the Islamic center would be several blocks away from the Trade Center site, and the group that wants to build it has no ties to the terrorists who masterminded 9/11.)

In public schools, Religious Right legal groups have argued that students have a “religious freedom” right to impose prayer and worship on other students at school-sponsored events. The effort has met with mixed success. The Supreme Court as recently as 2005 struck down so-called “student-initiated” prayers before football games, but some lower courts have bought into the Religious Right’s rationale and allowed students to recite prayers or engage in proselytizing during graduation ceremonies.

In other cases, Religious Right legal groups have argued that parents have a “religious freedom” right to send their children to private religious schools and that states are permitted to facilitate this through voucher plans. They’ve also raised religious freedom in defense of religious groups that want to take taxpayer money through “faith-based” initiatives yet limit hiring to fellow believers.

But perhaps the most alarming Religious Right attempt to redefine religious liberty comes in areas related to human sexuality. Religious Right legal groups have led the charge to roll back gay rights and block the spread of marriage equality in the states.

The marriage of a same-sex couple would seem to be no one’s business but their own. But to the Religious Right, such unions are a threat to Western civilization.

The ADF has been involved in a long-running case dealing with same-sex marriage in California. Voters narrowly approved a ban on same-sex unions in 2008, but the matter went to court. The Supreme Court will take up the issue this year, and the ADF and other Religious Right attorneys plan to be in the thick of the legal donnybrook.

When voters in Maryland, Maine and Washington approved same-sex marriage in 2012, ADF attorneys sent letters to state officials arguing that local court clerks have a “religious freedom” right to refuse to provide a government service to same-sex couples – a claim that has no foundation in the law.

Last year, the ADF took up the case of Julea Ward, a student at Eastern Michigan University. Ward, who was enrolled in a program to become a professional counselor, claimed her religious liberty rights were violated by a school policy that required her to abide by non-discrimination policies.

Ward said she would not counsel gays and lesbians. The school countered that its policies were based on standards promulgated by the American Counseling Association Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice and the American School Counselor Association Ethical Standards for School Counselors.

Cases like this are designed to help Rel­igious Right legal groups achieve their ultimate aim: preferential treatment for conservative religious interests.

If there’s one thing that binds these groups together, it’s their unrelenting hostility to the Jeffersonian church-state wall.

Alan Sears, a former Reagan-era anti-pornography crusader, serves as ADF president. In 2004, he told supporters, “One by one, more and more bricks that make up the artificial ‘wall of separation’ between church and state are being removed, and Christians are once again being allowed to exercise their constitutional right to equal access to public facilities and funding.”

Sekulow has frequently compared the church-state wall to the Berlin Wall. In the wake of one Supreme Court victory, Sekulow exhorted to his followers, “Yes, the so-called ‘wall of separation’ between church and state has begun to crumble.”

Staver has a special animus toward Americans United, an organization that he once said is “out to literally destroy America.” He has blasted AU and its supporters for “essentially saying that separation of church and state is required or part of the Constitution, which we know it’s not.”

The Becket Fund has often steered clear of language this incendiary, but that may be changing. Last year, writer Jon Ward of The Huffington Post reported that the group’s new president, William P. Mumma, was interested in taking the group in a more aggressive direction. Not long after that, the Becket Fund jumped head first into the “culture wars” by attacking access to birth control.

As these groups jockey for funding and exposure, some are branching out beyond church-state relations. Liberty Counsel filed one of the lawsuits against President Barack Obama’s health care reform, and the ACLJ’s Sekulow routinely pops off on issues such immigration, gun control and even the appointment of former U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel to be Defense Secretary. (Sekulow also has deep political ties to the GOP. During the 2012 election, he served as an advisor to Republican candidate Mitt Romney. There were even rumors that had Romney won, Sekulow would have been tapped for a federal position.)

These Religious Right organizations also have a warm relationship with government officials in many states. The ADF, for example, recently lined up 18 state attorneys general to sign a legal brief asking the Supreme Court to hear an appeal of Galloway v. Town of Greece, an Americans United case that successfully challenged sectarian prayers before municipal meetings in New York.

Similarly, the Becket Fund was able to muster considerable conservative legal firepower in asking the Supreme Court to hear an appeal of another AU case – Doe v. School District of Elmbrook, a successful challenge to a Wisconsin public school district’s practice of holding graduation ceremonies in a fundamentalist church. Becket drafted Michael McConnell, a law professor at Stanford and a former federal appeals court judge, to help frame its argument.

AU’s Lynn said the rise of Religious Right legal power is alarming and it’s critically important to meet the challenge in the nation’s courts.

“The ‘religious freedom’ the Religious Right seeks is the freedom to run other people’s lives according to their narrow doctrines,” Lynn said. “This is the opposite of real freedom, and it’s why Americans United’s legal department looks for every opportunity to counter the Religious Right agenda.”  

Source URL: http://www.alternet.org/belief/millions-assets-and-hundreds-attorneys-christian-right-waging-war-church-state-wall

Links:
[1] http://www.au.org/site/PageServer?pagename=aboutau
[2] http://www.alternet.org/authors/rob-boston
[3] http://www.alternet.org/tags/god
[4] http://www.alternet.org/tags/lawyers
[5] http://www.alternet.org/tags/christian-right
[6] http://www.alternet.org/%2Bnew_src%2B

 

Meet The Radical Republicans Chairing Important House Committees

By Zack Beauchamp on Nov 28, 2012, thinkprogress.org

Excerpt

…ThinkProgress’ guide to the views of five of the new committee chairs on the issues they’ll be in charge of, which range from climate change to immigration to financial regulation:

Lamar Smith (Texas) — Science, Space and Technology – …Smith is a climate change skeptic…Smith received significant donations from both Koch industries and the oil and gas sector in his most recent campaign…

Jeb Hensarling (Texas) — Financial Services – …his candidacy was underwritten by Wall Street: banks donated more than seven times as much as the next largest industry to Hensarling’s reelection campaign. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hensarling wants to take down the Dodd-Frank regulations and thinks taxing the financial industry is “frankly ludicrous.” Hensarling has also called Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid “cruel Ponzi schemes.”

Ed Royce (California) — Foreign Affairs -  Rep. Royce has a questionable history with respect to people from diverse cultures and backgrounds: last year, he told an anti-Muslim rally that multiculturalism “has paralyzed too many of our citizens to make the critical judgement we need to make to prosper as a society.” He also appears on lead Islamophobic propagandist Frank Gaffney’s radio show, proposed a national version of Arizona’s “papers, please” immigration law, and allegedly sent mailers accusing his Taiwanese-American opponent in the 2012 election of being funded by Chinese Communists.

Michael McCaul (Texas) — Homeland Security -  Rep. McCaul…endorsed .. hearings on Islamic terrorism that..demonized” Muslims. He’s also a drug warrior… celebrated Arizona’s discriminatory “show me your papers” immigration law…

Bob Goodlatte (Virginia) — Judiciary -  Rep. Goodlatte…is staunchly anti-immigrant, opposing a pathway to citizenship…holds fringe views on the Constitution: he believes that Social Security and Medicare are unconstitutional, and that the federal minimum wage may be.

Full text

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has announced the new House committee leaders: a full slate of white men. While many of these Congressmen are holding on positions they’ve already got, there are a few new faces sitting in the Chairperson’s seat. What follows is ThinkProgress’ guide to the views of five of the new committee chairs on the issues they’ll be in charge of, which range from climate change to immigration to financial regulation:

Lamar Smith (Texas) — Science, Space and Technology – Like his predecessor, Rep. Smith is a climate change skeptic. Smith refers to supporters of the scientific consensus as “global warming alarmists” and has criticized the media for not giving equal time to warming skeptics. His official website does say warming is occurring, but does not, as the consensus does, cite human activity as the cause. Unsurprisingly, Smith received significant donations from both Koch industries and the oil and gas sector in his most recent campaign. The new House point man on technology is also the author of the terrible Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) and opposes potentially life-saving embryonic stem cell research.

Jeb Hensarling (Texas) — Financial Services – Rep. Hensarling will be the point Republican on anything relating to the financial sector, but his candidacy was underwritten by Wall Street: banks donated more than seven times as much as the next largest industry to Hensarling’s reelection campaign. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hensarling wants to take down the Dodd-Frank regulations and thinks taxing the financial industry is “frankly ludicrous.” Hensarling has also called Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid “cruel Ponzi schemes.”

Ed Royce (California) — Foreign Affairs -  Rep. Royce has a questionable history with respect to people from diverse cultures and backgrounds: last year, he told an anti-Muslim rally that multiculturalism “has paralyzed too many of our citizens to make the critical judgement we need to make to prosper as a society.” He also appears on lead Islamophobic propagandist Frank Gaffney’s radio show, proposed a national version of Arizona’s “papers, please” immigration law, and allegedly sent mailers accusing his Taiwanese-American opponent in the 2012 election of being funded by Chinese Communists.

Michael McCaul (Texas) — Homeland Security -  Rep. McCaul, Congress’ richest member, seems primed to carry on his predecessor Peter King’s hardline legacy. McCaul enthusiastically endorsed King’s hearings on Islamic terrorism that, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “demonized” Muslims. He’s also a drug warrior who proposed legislation designating Mexican cartels “foreign terrorist organizations,” a move that infuriated the Mexican government and would have given the DEA access to enhanced counterterrorism powers. McCaul has also celebrated Arizona’s discriminatory “show me your papers” immigration law and compared President Obama to King George III.

Bob Goodlatte (Virginia) — Judiciary -  Rep. Goodlatte, like Rep. Royce, is staunchly anti-immigrant, opposing a pathway to citizenship and calling the DREAM act “ripe for fraud.” The Judiciary Committee has principal jurisdiction on immigration. Moreover, Goodlatte holds fringe views on the Constitution: he believes that Social Security and Medicare are unconstitutional, and that the federal minimum wage may be.

http://thinkprogress.org/politics/2012/11/28/1180181/meet-the-radical-republicans-chairing-important-house-committees/?mobile=nc

Republicans Lied To by ‘Conservative Entertainment Complex’ – David Frum

By Alexander C. Kaufman, Thewrap.com, November 09, 2012

Newsweek columnist David Frum called Republican leaders “cowards” and said the right-wing base has been lied to by a “conservative entertainment complex.”

Frum, a conservative who served as a speechwriter for President George W. Bush, made his remarks Friday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” He added that the GOP had been overrun by fear-mongers.

“The problem with Republican leaders is that they’re cowards,” Frum said, adding that the party’s base of donors “went apocalyptic” in the last four years.

Republicans have been fleeced and exploited and lied to by a conservative entertainment complex,” he said.

“Morning Joe” host Joe Scarborough pressed him to “name names,” which Frum skirted around, but he said there were “too many.”

Frum said he interviewed protesters at Tea Party rallies and found that a majority was convinced that taxes increased and that the federal government spent more than $1 trillion on welfare each year. Both claims are false.

“The followers, the donors and the activists are so mistaken about the nature of the problems the country faces,” Frum said.

http://www.thewrap.com/media/article/david-frum-republicans-lied-conservative-entertainment-complex-64421

The Right’s ‘School Choice’ Scheme

By Rachel Tabachnick [1], Political Research Associates, November 2, 2012|

This article originally appeared at Public Eye [2], the Web site of Political Research Associates.

In June 1995, the economist Milton Friedman wrote an article for the Washington Post promoting the use of public education funds for private schools as a way to transfer the nation’s public school systems to the private sector. “Vouchers,” he wrote, “are not an end in themselves; they are a means to make a transition from a government to a market system.” The article was republished by “free market” think tanks [3], including the Cato Institute and the Hoover Institution, with the title “Public Schools: Make Them Private.”

While Friedman has promoted vouchers for decades, most famously in his masterwork Free to Choose, the story of how public funds are actually being transferred to private, often religious, schools is a study in the ability of a few wealthy families, along with a network of right-wing think tanks, to create one of the most successful “astroturf” campaigns money could buy. Rather than openly championing dismantling the public school system, they promote bringing market incentives and competition into education as a way to fix failing schools, particularly in low-income Black and Latino communities.

Even before the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United ruling deregulated campaign finance and unleashed millions in political donations, concentrated wealth has played a role in politics. Now in the limelight for its attacks on unions and the exposure of 800 model bills and documents, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has produced model bills [4] favorable to its corporate and right-wing funders behind closed doors for decades– including school vouchers and tax credit bills.

This concentrated wealth is reaching into America’s classrooms state by state, promoting the transfer of public funds to private education through vouchers that allow parents to pay for tuition at private schools with public money. Promoting “school choice” through privately run charter schools doesn’t go far enough for these billionaires. Today, “private school choice” programs, as vouchers are called in the annual report of the Alliancefor School Choice, are in place [5] in 13 states and theDistrict of   Columbia. In 2011, a year when states across the nation slashed their education budgets, 41 states introduced 145 pieces of private school choice legislation.

When enacted, the scale can be enormous. InLouisiana, a recently passed school voucher program allocating private school slots for 5,000 students for the coming school year is expected to swell exponentially, encompassing as many as 380,000 students by the 2013-2014 academic year out of a total public school population of just over 700,000 students.

These programs drain tax dollars from public into private schools, including into religious schools with fundamentalist curricula (see below). This effort is cloaked in the language of school “reform” and marketed with the claim that these programs will improve the quality of education for minority students in underserved urban schools. Despite an effort to promote private school choice as a nonpartisan, grassroots effort, the engine behind the national effort and its local offshoots has been, and continues to be, a surprisingly small group of wealthy conservatives.

Betsy DeVos: Four Star General of the Privatization Juggernaut

Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State described Betsy DeVos as the “four-star general” of the school privatization movement shortly after DeVos announced the formation of the “new” American Federation for Children (AFC) in March 2010. AsBostonnoted, the American Federation for Children was not new, but a rebranding of an organization called Advocates for School Choice.

The American Federation for Children is now the umbrella organization for two nonprofits that have been at the center of the pro-privatization movement for over a decade. In addition to the renamed Advocates for School Choice, it includes theAlliancefor School Choice, formerly known as the Education Reform Council. Both entities received extensive funding from the late John Walton, one of the Wal-Mart heirs. The boards of the two related entities included movement leaders Betsy DeVos–scion of a Christian Right family who married into the Amway home goods fortune–William Oberndorf, Clint Bolick, John Kirtley, Steve Friess (son of Foster Friess), James Leininger, John Walton, and Cory Booker.

These two nonprofits–Alliance for School Choice, a 501(c)(3) and Advocates for School Choice a.k.a. American Federation for Children, a 501(c)(4)– provided over $17 million in grants [6] to 35 other national and state-level pro-privatization nonprofits from 2006 to 2010. These grants represented a significant portion of the total budgets for many of the state organizations. Today Betsy DeVos and John Kirtley are the chair and vice chair of both boards.

Betsy DeVos and her husband Dick also initiated a nonprofit (527) in 2003 with the name All Children Matter, dedicated to electing pro-voucher state legislators. [See box on DeVos and All Children Matter.] Today the American Federation for Children is the standard bearer for the movement and includes a network of state political action committees that have provided millions of dollars of campaign funds to legislators in states around the nation, in addition to the grants to pro-voucher nonprofits.

21st Century Strategies

When given a clear choice, voters across the United   Stateshave consistently opposed school vouchers. Between 1966 and 2000, state ballot initiatives to allow public funding for private schools were rejected [7] 24 out of 25 times. This dismal record led the pro-voucher strategists to rebrand the movement as “school choice” and as beneficial to public schools. In 2002, Dick DeVos suggested to a Heritage Foundation audience that the school choice movement should conceal its conservative roots. He advised that “properly communicated, properly constructed, [school choice] can cut across a lot of historic boundaries, be they partisan, ethnic, or otherwise.”

He continued [8]:

We need to be cautious about talking too much about these activities. Many of the activities and the political work that needs to go on will go on at the grass roots. It will go on quietly and it will go on in the form that often politics is done – one person at a time, speaking to another person in privacy.

Dick and Betsy DeVos followed through. By 2009, the media packet of the DeVos-founded All Children Matter promoted the following successes:

  • · Spent $7.6 million in 2003-2004 directly impacting statewide and state legislative elections in ten targeted states.
  • · In races with significant ACM involvement, we have a won/loss record of 121 to 60, phenomenally successful for a political organization.
  • · In an era where incumbents are rarely challenged or defeated, ACM had a role in defeating 17 incumbents that opposed school choice for low-income families.
  • · ACM has supported the campaigns of four school choice Governors – Bobby Jindal inLouisiana, Matt Blunt inMissouri, Mitch Daniels in Indiana, and Jon Huntsman, Jr., inUtah.

How It Works: The Case of Pennsylvania in 2010

The wealthy benefactors use a system of “rewards and consequences” across the states. It includes funding the campaigns of pro-voucher candidates and funding attack ads against anti-voucher candidates. Legislators who oppose funding private schools with public funds are accused of selling out [9] to teachers’ unions–the primary “villains” behind underperforming schools in the pro-voucher narrative. The 2010 election in Pennsylvania is an instructive example of the ability of American Federation for Children and its core of wealthy donors to conduct a large-scale astroturf campaign [10] under the public radar.

First, a PAC named Students First, which would be used as the conduit for millions of dollars of political contributions, was registered by Joe Watkins in March 2010. This organization was named in such a way to be easily confused with the national school reform organization, StudentsFirst, led by former Washington, D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee. Watkins, an African-American pastor, had advised the George W. Bush campaign and appeared in Citizens United advertisements against presidential candidate Obama in 2008, but his GOP credentials were omitted from the Students First PAC website.

Pennsylvaniahas no limits on individual contributions in state campaigns. During the 2010 gubernatorial election, the Students First PAC outspent the combined state teachers’ unions by a factor of more than ten to one. Most of this funding came from three investment firm partners. An additional $1.1 million of Student First’s funding came from the AFC’s PAC in Indiana. The Indiana PAC was registered in January 2010 under the address of Bopp, Coleson, and Bostrom, a prominent law firm representing political Right causes, including Citizens United.12 In 2010, the Indiana PAC received over $5.8 million [11] from only 14 donors, including Betsy DeVos and Alice Walton, another heir to the Wal-Mart fortune, and three megadonors from Pennsylvania. The following May, Gov. Mitch Daniels signed a sweeping voucher bill.

The three Pennsylvaniamegadonors were described in state press as simply “pro-voucher supporters” with no mention of their association with right-wing think tanks. Joel Greenberg is on the board [12] of American Federation for Children; Jeffrey Yass is on the board [13] of the Cato Institute; and Arthur Dantchik is on the board [14] of the Institute for Justice, which is working to circumvent or change the wording in state constitutions that disallows public funding of religious schools. There was also noPennsylvania press coverage in 2010 of the Betsy DeVos-led AFC.

Students First poured more than $6.5 million into the 2010 election, most of it in the gubernatorial primary in support of Anthony H. Williams, an African-American pro-voucher candidate and Democratic state senator. Their candidate had little chance of winning, but the ploy apparently lured the eventual Democratic nominee, Dan Onorato, into embracing some of Williams’ voucher plan. Onorato failed to secure the millions in funding for himself that the pro-voucher movement had given Williams, but he did anger labor unions across the state. Republican candidate Tom Corbett won and Williams sponsored a voucher bill in early 2011–Senate Bill 1 (SB1). Corbett was the keynote speaker at the AFC national conference in 2011.

Students First worked with prominent Republican media firm Brabender Cox to generate support for the legislation, blanketing the airwaves with ads promoting SB1 as the salvation of poor urban children and attacking the bill’s opponents as being under the influence of “powerful teachers’ unions.” Joining the push for SB1 was the Scaife- and DeVos-funded FreedomWorks, the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, theScaife-fundedCommonwealthFoundation, and the state pro-voucher organization REACHAlliance. REACH, by the way, secured $460,000 from AFC/Advocates for School Choice andAlliancefor School Choice from 2006 to 2010.

Nevertheless, Pennsylvanians across the political spectrum opposed the school voucher scheme and the bill failed to pass.

Still, the pro-voucher effort continues. Students First has already received $1.4 million in 2012 to continue the battle–$1.25 million from AFC and $50,000 each from Greenberg, Yass, and Dantchik.

Using Corporate Tax Credits to Promote “Choice”

AlthoughPennsylvaniadoes not have a voucher program, the state has one of the largest school choice programs in the country, second only toFlorida. This is made possible through a corporate tax credit program named the Education Improvement Tax Credit, initiated in 2001.

State Senator Sam Rohrer (R-128th District), an opponent of teaching evolution in schools, claims credit for writing the state’s education tax bill. Under the law, companies can divert their tax liability to private school scholarships, with 75 percent credited toward their state taxes 90 percent on a commitment of two consecutive years. According to Pennsylvania accounting firms, as well as the private schools promoting the tax credit and REACH Alliance, these donations cost the corporation little or nothing, and also count as a charitable contribution on the corporation’s federal taxes.15 (Individuals contributing to nonprofit charities still pay the bulk of their donations from their own pockets.) The tax credit has been expertly (and falsely) marketed inPennsylvaniaas costing the taxpayers nothing.

In Pennsylvania, some of these funds are going to schools using texts from A Beka Book, Bob Jones University Press, and other fundamentalist curricula. [See sidebar]. Some of the private schools now receiving students through this funding have testified to the legislature in support of vouchers and bussed students to the state capitol for rallies in support of SB-1. One of the pro-voucher schools was featured on the Glenn Beck Show [15] in 2011, with a parent representative celebrating the school’s promotion of “biblical principles” and the “flight of public school students to private schools” to escape secularism and socialism. This same academy takes its students on field trips to the Creation Science Museum south ofCincinnati, where exhibits show dinosaurs and people living on earth together.

Pennsylvaniais one of 37 states that have strict constitutional prohibitions against using public money for religious schools, and specifically disallows [16] appropriations to educational institutions “not under the absolute control of the Commonwealth.” The corporations’ education tax credit, however, is not the obvious violation of state law that a school voucher program would be.Florida’s constitution also disallows using public funds for religious schools, but in November, Floridians will be voting on an initiative that could eliminate the prohibition.

Promoting Vouchers to Latino and African American Leaders

By the time of Dick DeVos’ 2002 Heritage Foundation speech, strategists had already begun trying to rebrand vouchers, which have a racist history. Following federal efforts to enforce the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, Southern states devised a “private school plan” to defend segregation by leaving public schools and taking the money with them. Georgia Governor Herman Talmadge advanced a constitutional amendment that could have allowed the privatization of the state’s entire public school system [17]. “In the event of court-ordered desegregation, school buildings would be closed, and students would receive grants to attend private, segregated schools.”

More recently, voucher supporters recognized the need to reinvent the movement by obscuring its White, conservative support base and cultivating the support of Latino and African-American leaders as the face of the movement. These leaders have valid complaints about inequality in public education and the failure of public schools to provide quality education to low income Black and Latino children. Having their parents support vouchers–and charters–in the name of improving education is a potent political force.

The most prominent among these leaders is Howard Fuller, the former Black Nationalist who brought vouchers to the Milwaukeeschool system when he led it in the early 1990s. In August 2000, he launched the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO). Its major funders included John Walton and the Harry and Lynde Bradley Foundation, based in Milwaukee, which also funded Fuller’s Institute for the Transformation of Learning at MarquetteUniversity, founded in 1995. These funders, as People for the American Waycommented in an extensive report on the group [18], are “better known for supporting education privatization and affirmative action rollbacks than empowerment of the African-American community or low-income families.”

The conservatives had found their standard bearer. BAEO immediately launched a massive media campaign in support of vouchers in Washington, D.C.The Annenberg Public Policy Center reported that the BAEO spent over $4.3 million on print and television ads. By 2002, BAEO had 33 chapters [19]. And today, about one quarter ofMilwaukee’s students use vouchers to attend private, often religious schools.

According to school choice supporter Hubert Morken’s extensive histories of the programs, outreach to key African American Democrats in various parts of the country was the product of carefully cultivated relationships with free-market think tanks and organizations like the Pennsylvania Family Institute and REACH Alliance. Particularly important for recruiting supporters in these ranks is the former Congressman, Rev. Floyd Flake, a BAEO leader. Flake is the longtime senior pastor of the Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral in Queens, one of the largest churches inNew York. In 1999, Flake introduced George W. Bush to an audience at the Manhattan Institute and described the future president as his “compatriot in the politics to change public education in theUnited States.” In 2000, Flake became head of the charter schools division of Edison Schools, at that time the largest for-profit school management company in the country.

Morken quotes Flake,

“I was on the phone Thursday withTomRidge, who is the governor ofPennsylvania, who worked with me in Congress, where they are taking over the schools and may be taking over thePhiladelphiaschools. So I’ll be meeting with [Philadelphia]Mayor Streeton Wednesday morning. I’ve already had telephone conversations with the secretary of state ofNew Jerseywhere they are taking over the schools inCamdenandJersey City. I’m all over the country right now.”

Shortly thereafter, Edison took over management of 20Philadelphiaschools.

Morken describes Flake as “targeting core groups of swing voters” in “Black and Latino caucuses” and often promoting charter schools from “the pulpits of their churches.” Morken states that Flake was “at the center of a major funding coalition in New Yorkstate” that included rightwing funder John Walton. Flake and his wife had founded a 750-student private school affiliated with their church in 1982; it closed in June 2012 in the face of a $1.7 million budget shortfall [20]. Edison Schools failed to produce the promised improvements and their contracts for Philadelphia schools were ended in 2008 and 2011 [21].

The AFC claims that 91 percent of Latinos polled in five states support vouchers or corporate tax credit programs [22], and that this will be an issue in the 2012 election. AFC and its related entities provided almost a half million dollars in funding for the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options between 2006 and 2010.

Private school choice is not only a way to privatize education but viewed by some as a wedge issue to bring Latinos and African Americans into the Republican Party.

Grading the Privatization Report Card

The pro-corporate ideology behind school choice asserts that business style competition will be invariably good for education, and that putting school management and teaching into private (and nonunion) hands will make education less expensive, more efficient and more effective.

The statistics do not bear out their claims. By the time of the 2010 election and 2011 campaign for Pennsylvania’s SB1, test results for the two oldest school voucher programs in the nation – Milwaukee and Cleveland [23] – had reported disappointing results. Participating students scored no better or worse [23] than their peers who had remained in the public schools. Voucher proponents responded by asserting that voucher students attending private schools graduate at a higher rate. They fail to mention the lack of standards or accountability for some of the institutions bestowing those diplomas.

Much of the positive reporting on private school choice quotes the Foundation for Educational Excellence, founded by Milton Friedman; the Department of Education Reform atUniversityofArkansas, recipient of a $300 million donation from the Walton Foundation; and other entities funded by pro-privatization supporters.

Louisiana’s new voucher program, signed into law by Gov. Bobby Jindal in spring 2012, has a list of approved schools that includes church schools using home schooling DVDs for instruction and schools that lack the facilities to house the students they are offering to enroll for the 2012-2013 school year. Louisianalegislators threatened to withdraw support if an Islamic school was included in the approved list, of which over 90 percent are Christian schools [24]. The program promises to be such a debacle that the Cato Institute is already recommending a corporate tax credit program instead of vouchers [25].

But the private school choice juggernaut will roll on and the claims of privatization as the magic bullet will continue, no matter how baseless these claims may be. The multi-billion dollar budget for the nation’s schools is a rich prize for those who would profit from the privatization of public schools, and they are joined by equally determined anti-public education ideologues. In May 2011, a headline in the Wall Street Journal trumpeted, “The Evidence is In: School Vouchers Work [26].”

Tax Dollars Supporting Creationism

The private “school choice” movement has found a way to circumvent the federal courts, the National Council for Science Education (NCSE) and the ACLU by thinking outside of the box. The Education Improvement Tax Credit program in Pennsylvania has provided a way to use public funds to teach creationism and global warning denial to students enrolled in religious schools. This circumvents the ruling in Kitzmiller v. Dover, a 2005 federal case resulting in a decision that Intelligent Design is not science, and should not be taught in public school science classes.

Many Pennsylvania schools receiving education tax credit funding are using A Beka Book and other fundamentalist curricula [27]. These textbooks are hostile to Roman Catholicism and other Christian and non-Christian religions [28], and teach a radical form of market fundamentalism, young earth creationism, and distorted American history where, in the words of researcher Frances Paterson, “Democrats are deluded, liberals are villains, and conservatives are heroes.”

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and The National Center for Science Education, (whose logo is “Defending the Teaching of Evolution and Climate Science”) led the fight against Intelligent Design. Nevertheless, when contacted, both institutions described the Education Improvement Tax Credit issue as being outside the boundaries of their mission, since the teaching of creationism is taking place in private schools.

The DeVoses–Dollars at the Intersection

Dick and Betsy DeVos represent the merger of two wealthy and politically influential families. Dick DeVos is the son of Richard DeVos, one of the founders of the Amway pyramidal home products business and owner of the Orlando Magic basketball team. Listed as the 60th wealthiest person in the United States and the 205th richest in the world, his net worth has been estimated at $5 billion. He has played a central role in bringing together the “doers and the donors” as he once described the New Right merger of the Religious Right with major funders of the political Right.

Dick’s wife, Betsy, is the daughter of Elsa and the late Erik Prince, major contributors to conservative causes including Focus on Family and the Family Research Council. Betsy’s brother Erik Prince founded the infamous military contractor Blackwater USA (rebranded “Xe”), which sought to privatize another type of activity that previously had been presumed to be under the control of government agencies. Betsy DeVos heads the American Federation for Children, the national umbrella organization at the center of the private school choice movement.

In 2003, Dick and Betsy DeVos founded All Children Matter, a 527 organization, and established Political Action Committees (PACs) in Virginia, Indiana, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Ohio. PACs can make contributions directly to political campaigns. All Children Matter’s media kit advertised expenditures of $7.6 million in 2003-2004, “directly impacting statewide and state legislative elections in 10 targeted states.”

In 2008, All Children Matter was fined $5.2 million in Ohio for breaking campaign finance law, a decision that was appealed and confirmed in 2010. All Children Matter was moving money from the Virginia PAC to PACs in states around the nation. Some states allow unlimited contributions, but Ohio fined All Children Matter for contributions over the maximum limit allowed. In 2011, it was reported that the fine was still unpaid. Wisconsin also fined the organization $500 for supporting candidates without registering a PAC.

Between 2009 and 2011, the All Children Matter state PACs were disbanded. During the same time period, PACs affiliated with the Betsy DeVos-led American Federation for Children were registered in several of the same states.

See more stories tagged with:

education [29],

k-12 [30],

Advocates for School Choice [31],

Alliance for School Choice [32],

school vouchers [33],

American Civil Liberties Union [34],

american legislative exchange council [35],

Betsy DeVos [36],

bobby jindal [37],

cato institute [38],

charter schools [39],

family research council [40],

Education Reform Council [41],

heritage foundation [42],

hoover institute [43],

michelle rhee [44],

milton friedman [45],

religious right [46],

Richard DeVos [47],

studentsfirst [48],

Walton Family Foundation [49]


Source URL: http://www.alternet.org/rights-school-choice-scheme

Links:
[1] http://www.alternet.org/authors/rachel-tabachnick
[2] http://www.publiceye.org/magazine/v27n3/School_Choice.html
[3] http://media.hoover.org/sites/default/files/documents/0817928723_339.pdf
[4] http://www.publiceye.org/defendingjustice/pdfs/chapters/cons_infra.pdf
[5] http://www.allianceforschoolchoice.org/yearbook
[6] http://www.publiceye.org/magazine/v27n3/PE_Summer%202012/Private_School_Choice.jpg
[7] http://www.arlinc.org/articles/article_voterssayno.html
[8] http://www.talk2action.org/story/2011/5/3/12515/58655
[9] http://www.talk2action.org/story/2011/4/26/112152/230
[10] http://www.talk2action.org/story/2011/4/20/232844/831
[11] http://www.talk2action.org/story/2011/4/24/22559/1547
[12] http://www.federationforchildren.org/leadership
[13] http://www.cato.org/people/directors.html
[14] http://www.ij.org/about/board
[15] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ve0_nDYBZHc&feature=youtu.be
[16] http://sites.state.pa.us/PA_Constitution.html
[17] http://press.princeton.edu/titles/8043.html
[18] http://www.pfaw.org/media-center/publications/community-voice-or-captive-right-closer-look-black-alliance-educational-op
[19] http://www.pfaw.org/media-center/publications/community-voice/expanding-the-pr-machine
[20] http://www.newsday.com/news/new-york/allen-christian-school-in-queens-to-close-1.3533617
[21] http://www.educationnews.org/articles/edison-schools-perform-poorly-nationwide.html
[22] http://www.federationforchildren.org/articles/689
[23] http://www.educationvoterspa.org/index.php/site/issues/debunking-the-myths-about-vouchers/
[24] http://www.louisianaschools.net/404Error.html?aspxerrorpath=/resources/community/scholarships_map.aspx
[25] http://www.cato-at-liberty.org/state-rep-balks-at-voucher-funding-for-muslim-school/
[26] http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703396404576283381160558552.html
[27] http://www.publiceye.org/magazine/v26n1/schoolhouse_to_statehouse.html
[28] http://www.talk2action.org/story/2011/5/25/84149/9275
[29] http://www.alternet.org/tags/education-0
[30] http://www.alternet.org/tags/k-12
[31] http://www.alternet.org/tags/advocates-school-choice
[32] http://www.alternet.org/tags/alliance-school-choice
[33] http://www.alternet.org/tags/school-vouchers
[34] http://www.alternet.org/tags/american-civil-liberties-union
[35] http://www.alternet.org/tags/american-legislative-exchange-council
[36] http://www.alternet.org/tags/betsy-devos
[37] http://www.alternet.org/tags/bobby-jindal-0
[38] http://www.alternet.org/tags/cato-institute
[39] http://www.alternet.org/tags/charter-schools
[40] http://www.alternet.org/tags/family-research-council-0
[41] http://www.alternet.org/tags/education-reform-council
[42] http://www.alternet.org/tags/heritage-foundation
[43] http://www.alternet.org/tags/hoover-institute
[44] http://www.alternet.org/tags/michelle-rhee
[45] http://www.alternet.org/tags/milton-friedman
[46] http://www.alternet.org/tags/religious-right
[47] http://www.alternet.org/tags/richard-devos
[48] http://www.alternet.org/tags/studentsfirst
[49] http://www.alternet.org/tags/walton-family-foundation
[50] http://www.alternet.org/%2Bnew_src%2B