Last week, to little notice or fanfare, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fired a shot across the bow of the Constitution. Speaking to the Alfred E. Smith Foundation, which raises money for Catholic causes, DeVos spoke out passionately against the separation of church and state.
The target of her ire was the “Blaine Amendments” on the books in many states that prevent public money from being given to religious causes, chiefly parochial education. States from California to Texas prohibit using taxpayer money to favor a particular religion, and they’re grounded in a national sentiment.
While far from absolutely secure, the constitutional articulation of the separation of church and state, the Establishment Clause, is one of the rare instances where taxpayers can sue over how that money is spent.
And she’s pretty sure that the separation between church and state is doomed. In her remarks, Secretary DeVos cited the 2017 Supreme Court decision in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, which supported taxpayer spending on church-sponsored projects. The court’s reasoning was that the church was being denied an otherwise available public benefit, which violated the other side of the Establishment Clause’s coin, the Free Exercise Clause.
And that’s central to DeVos’ overall objective: American theocracy.
By using school vouchers to broaden the choices to include private as well as public schools, the taxpayer money used in education gets subjected to the Trinity Lutheran decision. Suddenly, the fight to “put God back in schools” becomes less a fight against the First Amendment and more a fight for each individual school district.
And in the Trump Administration, DeVos’ strategy has a powerful ally. The President has declared public schools “failing” (which totally worked for the “failing” New York Times) and works with DeVos to undermine public education. The duo slashed the public education budget in favor of promoting privatization of schools, and the consigning of secular education to DeVos’ ash heap.
These remarks to the Smith Foundation were coupled with action, who earlier this month pushed a sweeping deregulation effort aimed at limiting the role to which education policy is made a secular practice, turning critical attention to provisions that “unnecessarily restrict participation by religious entities.”
Famously, at a 2001 event called The Gathering, DeVos said she wasn’t for destroying public education, but instead for advancing Christianity.
“Our desire is to … confront the culture in which we all live today in ways which will continue to help advance God’s kingdom,” DeVos said.
As Secretary of Education, she’s moving at full steam toward making America God’s kingdom, separation of church and state be damned.
Katelyn Kivel is a contributing editor for Grit Post in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @KatelynKivel.