NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Using Vouchers To Avoid Church-State Conflicts

April 30, 2001

There are two main objections to President Bush's proposal to allow religious organizations to spend federal money on social programs to help the poor. The first is that such a program could be challenged as unconstitutional on grounds of separation of church and state. The other is that federal involvement will undercut the religious mission of churches and synagogues.

Some social observers think those problems could be avoided through the use of vouchers -- which would allow the user, not the government, to select the service he or she wants. Recipients could use the vouchers at any facility, religious or secular, that maintains a worthy program.

Vouchers have already been used in some programs, so there is a precedent.

  • Poor people already receive vouchers to supplement or cover their housing needs.
  • Low-income women receive vouchers to buy day care at religious institutions.
  • Some cities, such as Milwaukee, give vouchers to parents sending their children to religious schools.
  • And last year, the Supreme Court ruled that a federal program which placed computers and other "instructional equipment" in parochial schools did not violate the constitutional separation of church and state.

The alternative to vouchers -- which would be direct grants to religious institutions -- is harder to impose constitutionally without compromising a religious institution's spiritual message.

Source: James Q. Wilson, "Why Not Try Vouchers?" New York Times, April 27, 2001.


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