When the American Civil Liberties Union says something reasonable, we should be suspicious. But when the ACLU claims to be protecting Catholic education, it's time to worry.

At a recent debate on school vouchers hosted by the University of Maryland's Brody Forum, ACLU President Nadine Strossen argued that Catholic education cannot receive vouchers and remain Catholic. That, she said, would be unfortunate. Strossen's concern for Catholic education seems disingenuous, but the potential threat of secularizing Catholic education is real enough.

In recent years, the secularizing threat has come primarily from the ACLU itself, so Strossen's point was a case of the fox reminding the farmer to guard the henhouse. The ACLU's activist lawyers seem more inclined to remove all religion from publicly funded education.

Catholic schools make themselves a prime target for the ACLU because they provide the best alternative to failing inner-city public schools. Thus we have seen the ACLU set its attorneys upon existing school-choice programs in the states that have them — Ohio, Wisconsin, Arizona and Florida. It is because of the ACLU's aggressive anti-voucher activities that Catholics need to make sure any new voucher legislation is crafted in such a way that it protects the religious mission and content of Catholic education.

It's noteworthy that, in cities with voucher programs, only faith-based schools have stepped forward to participate. Fully 97% of participating private schools in Cleveland and 92% in Milwaukee are religious, and the vast majority of these are Catholic. Parochial and a handful of Protestant schools have stuck by inner-city students while non-sectarian private schools in the suburbs have declined to accept voucher students. But can the religious schools continue to serve these students under pressure from the ACLU?

During the debate, Strossen warned that, should public vouchers stand, the ACLU's strategy would include pursuing litigation against Catholic schools that would force them to adopt federal hiring practices. This would mean they could no longer select teachers on the basis of religious belief; next, the ACLU would seek to force the schools to remove all religious content from the curriculum so that impressionable children would not be subjected to “religious indoctrination.” If the ACLU can't defeat vouchers, it will settle for destroying the schools that would most benefit from the programs.

This is a heartless strategy for desperate times, but a radically secularist interpretation of the separation of church and state is one of the surest constitutional bases the ACLU can stand on, given court rulings in the past several decades. Maine and Vermont already have successful voucher programs for K-12 education, but courts in both of those states rejected the participation of religious schools in the programs. This past December, the Cleveland voucher program was halted by a federal judge precisely because he said it was biased toward religious schools.

Coerced Catholicism?

The crux of the ACLU argument goes something like this: Since inner-city parents have no choice in education outside of religious schools, vouchers coerce desperate parents to use Catholic schools, which constitutes an establishment of religion. This is spurious, because parents in these cities may choose among charter schools and better public schools. But it does highlight the fact that a private education the poor and middle class can afford is usually a Catholic education. Nonsectarian private schools frequently cost more than $10,000 per year. Vouchers are valued at $1,500 to $3,000 per year depending on financial need.

The bishops in these dioceses will face an excruciating choice: turn away the children stuck in deplorable public education who would like to use public vouchers, or water down the religious dimension of the curricula in order to continue doing the heroic job of educating the urban poor.

Should we turn away inner-city children who would like to use public vouchers to attend Catholic schools — or remove the religious dimension from our core curriculum?

During the past decade, bishops of inner-city dioceses have been under enormous financial pressure to close parochial schools in parishes that can no longer support them. Some have closed, but many have been saved to serve their more than 75% non-Catholic students. The subtle shift to a less-religious curriculum would be done with the best of intentions.

In Milwaukee, Catholic schools may receive vouchers on the condition that students be permitted to opt out of the religious portion of the curriculum. In 1996 the U.S. Congress came very close to passing a citywide voucher program for the District of Columbia with similar language until some of its supporters defected when Cardinal James Hickey's silence on the plan was interpreted as disapproval. Attempts since then for a voucher program without the opt-out clause have failed to garner enough support to pass.

But Catholic education has already made a Faustian bargain if it is possible to opt out of the religion class and if literature, biology and history classes are stripped of religious content. (It is bad enough when they do this without government pressure.) ACatholic philosophy of education always recognizes that knowledge is holistic.

Should a Catholic school teach history without any reference to Christ or the tradition of the Catholic faith in America? Should science class be free of any discussion of the unique human dignity of every human person as created by God? And if we relegate these to “religious instruction,” what are we teaching our children about the world? We are saying that truth is compartmentalized and may be taken a la carte, and that morality and theology have nothing to do with science and technology — which is the very world that children today already grow up in.

Secular Stipulations

Textbooks provide a perfect example of the temptation. Maryland passed a bill this March, after rancorous debate, that will grant parochial schools $6 million to be used for textbooks, provided none of the books has religious content. Other states have similar textbook programs and the federal government dispenses money for remedial education, teacher training and technology upgrades so long as none of the money is used for religious purposes. Teachers will have to go to extra lengths to incorporate Catholic teaching they won't find in the materials provided by the government.

And Catholic school teachers themselves may fall prey to secularization if the National Education Association has its way. The national teachers union has already been holding workshops on how it might unionize private-school teachers whether or not public money begins to roll in. Given the wide salary gap between private and public school teachers, the unions will have an exploitable grievance. It is hard to imagine that a unionized, private-teachers association will be guided by the highest ideals in Catholic social thought.

But the loss of the “Catholic” in Catholic education can be even more subtle. Boston University professor Charles Glenn has studied six countries in Europe where private schools receive public funds and has concluded that, over time and in every case, these schools have “been assimilated to the assumptions and guiding values of public schooling.”

Catholics shouldn't oppose vouchers under the threat of ACLU litigation. The lives of the children involved are worth battling for. But Catholics should consider opposing the kinds of vouchers that would water down the vital religious content of schools that we have saved at so great a cost.

Most of the teachers and administrators I have spoken with about vouchers express concern that their Catholic identity would in some way be compromised by public assistance. They want to help as many children as they can in the inner city, but not at the expense of that key component, the Catholic component, which they see as the difference between success and failure.

By letting students out of the religious portion of the curriculum, we would be saying that religion is a dispensable part of education. But can Catholic education do without Catholic faith? Surely not. It's the specifically religious character of these schools that distinguishes them; that distinction is what keeps teachers and students alike coming back. Catholic schools create an environment of love and respect for the dignity of every person. It's an environment well worth fighting for — and fighting is an imperative at a time when several forces would love nothing more than a chance to tear down Catholic education's very foundations.

Jason Boffetti is project coordinator for the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C.