Secular Humanism vs. Religion? The Liberal Democratic Education Tradition and the Battle over Vouchers in the USA

Document Type


Publication Date

Fall 10-1-2007


Since Mueller vs. Allen (1983), several legal decisions have attempted to clarify what is the appropriate relationship between religion and public education in a democratic society. During this time, the United States legal system has shifted, moving the historic establishment clause” away from a strict “separationist” view and toward an “accommodationist” interpretation. This major philosophical shift correlates with other landmark legal decisions; one finds publicly sponsored vouchers for private and religious schools are constitutional, another argues publicly sponsored for-profit charter schools are permissible. With faith-based initiatives signaling that the trend toward public financing of religious education is emerging as a full-blown wave, under TITLE V-PROMOTING INFORMED PARENTAL CHOICE AND INNOVATIVE PROGRAMS of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLBA), the federal department of education asserts that publicly sponsored, for-profit supplemental educational services are not only allowable, but need to be encouraged. Two major legal cases in particular have fueled this legitimization of the notion of ‘school choice,’ the first concerning vouchers and the second concerning charter schools as public schools:

  • Zelman, Superintendent of Public Instruction of Ohio, et al. v. Simmons-Harris et al. 2002. No. 00-1751.
  • State ex rel. Ohio Congress of Parents & Teachers v. State Bd. of Edn., (2005) 111 Ohio St.3d 568, 2006-Ohio-5512.

Compiling over a seventeen year period a running chronicle of the contested birth of school choice in the United States of America, the author conducted ongoing simultaneous academic and journalistic research into the debate over the legality of, and dawning recognition of, the philosophical shift that has paved the way for acceptance of, education privatization, or more accurately termed, the corporatization of American education. Prior scholarly work has provided a rich tapestry of the conflict over values in education, values considered secular and values seen as religious. These values debates come to a head with the emergence of the vouchers phenomenon and the campaign to validate the superiority of privatized “choice” schooling on religious grounds. So how does the history of these debates over values in education relate to current voucher battles? Throughout this essay, the author will consider: is the historic conflict of secular humanism vs. religion really the engine that is driving the battle over vouchers and school choice today? What will be argued, in fact, is the obverse, that America’s venerable secular educational philosophy is being undermined, not so much by the new religious evangelicalism as by free market economics, as the author proposes to show in the form of a personal narrative relating his own (eighteen year) journey as a ubiquitous eyewitness to and video documentarist of the battle over vouchers, the emergence of charter schools as public schools, and the expansion of ‘school choice’ under NCLBA.


This paper was originally published as part of the 2007 volume of Forum on Public Policy, number 2. It has been re-posted here with permission of the author.

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