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School vouchers and Roger Williams

07/30/02 12:00AM By Ruth Page
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(Host) Commentator Ruth Page examines the Supreme Court decision to let tax money be used for vouchers to either public or religious schools.

(Page) Roger Williams left England in 1631, because of his profound belief that every person's soul and conscience is independent; individuals should be free to worship according to personal belief, and none should be constrained. The pilgrims left England because the Church of England was the only government-approved religion, which all were required to support.

Now, though nothing like that is contemplated in the United States, our Supreme Court has, for the first time, said it is constitutional for states to use tax monies for vouchers; these help parents pay to send their children to any school of their choice, religious or otherwise. (Williams, long in his grave, is probably known to his graveyard companions as "Pinwheel Williams.")

Unfortunately, the Puritans who came to this country ended up insisting everyone in their colonies follow strict Puritan beliefs. Roger Williams protested, and was banished in 1635. With his friends the Indians to assist, he braved winter snows and traveled southeastward to found a new colony. He named it Providence, or Gift of God. When he later went to England to get a charter for his Providence Plantations in Narragansett Bay, the little state was named Rhode Island, and founded on his principle of "liberty of conscience." The new state became a welcome harbor for Quakers and others escaping persecution.

Williams' belief required total separation of church and state. No citizen's taxes could be used to support any religion. Williams was one of the first champions of the freedoms now built into our Constitution and Bill of Rights.

National Parks magazine reminds those of us far from our school history lessons that Williams, in his outstanding book The Bloody Tenet of Persecution, clearly laid out his reasons for wishing to "free men's souls." Williams had studied both law and theology at Cambridge University in England, so he wrote with knowledge and persuasiveness. For people who had lived where state religion was a fact of life, his book opened a window to the fresh breezes of unconstrained religious thought.

While there are some choices among public schools today, the major choice for most parents to consider is between public school and Catholic school. Religious schools teach religion. Choosing among different public schools may be a good way to make them all eager to improve. Using tax money to let children attend religious schools helps promote those religions. To argue otherwise is not logic; it's sophistry.

This is Ruth Page, wondering about the Supreme Court's latest interpretation of the constitution's call for the separation of Church and State.
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