Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Church and state in Georgia

For two years in a row, Georgia’s Republican Governor Sonny Perdue has been promoting a measure to bring our state’s constitutional provisions in line with the U.S. Supreme Court’s interpretation of the First Amendment, which, of course, is not perfect, but better than what we have here in the Peach State. The current provision reads as follows:

No money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect, cult, or religious denomination or of any sectarian institution.

As it currently stands, this language prohibits much of what comprises the faith-based initiative at the federal level, permitting only contracting with largely secularized organizations, like Catholic Social Services. A working mother could not take a state-provided child care voucher and redeem it at a church-based pre-school. An addict could not use a state-provided voucher to receive services from a faith-based rehab program. And, obviously and most importantly, no parent could use a voucher to send his or her kids to a religious school.

That, indeed, is the rub, the principal reason that opponents of the proposed amendment prevailed yesterday in the state senate, with the measure falling three votes short of the necessary two-thirds majority.

The irony is that the argument deployed in opposition assumes that the current constitution prohibits vouchers, such as those currently given to Georgia students attending private (including church-related) colleges and universities and those financed through the state lottery for pre-kindergarten. The wildly popular HOPE Scholarship also is redeemable at church-related colleges and universities. So either the opponents of the Governor’s proposal are wrong, and the state constitution already permits what they say is their principal fear, or they’re right, and some of the most popular programs in Georgia--the cornerstones of our effort to raise ourselves from the bottom of national educational rankings--are unconstitutional, existing either because no one had been foolish (or smart) enough to sue or because judges are willing to overlook the plain meaning of Georgia’s constitutional language.

Sorry for intruding this "parochial" concern on this page, but it’s the only place I can vent. And Georgia’s battle is, after all, a microcosm of what occurs across the country, indicative of obstacles the faith-based initiative faces on the ground.

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