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February,1999

Vouchers and Cultural Dignity by Cliff Walker

I called the company that makes the software that I use to create "Positive Atheism." Secretive about the nature of the magazine, I only wanted to solve the problem. Many of us do this, you know.

Curiosity getting the best of him, the manager asked what kind of magazine I publish. I said, "'Positive Atheism': the name says it all."

He said, "We are on opposite ends of the spectrum: I am an Orthodox Jew." He then proceeded to tell me how he wants government vouchers so his kids can go to Hebrew school. He suggested that I, as an atheist, might be to opposed that idea.

"It's as an American that I oppose vouchers," I said. When I mentioned the Constitution, he said he doesn't care for the separation of church and state, and wants God promoted in any way possible.

At first I thought my leg was being pulled. Then I realized that, either way, you don't discuss the law with people who talk like that, you simply invoke the law and that's that.

I reminded him of the point of public education, that being twofold: One, to educate every child, regardless of family finances, makes a nation strong. Secondly, public schools, unlike private ones, must accept any student, regardless of special needs. If educating a handicapped child requires $10,000 more per year, we, the public, will pick up the tab.

He pointed out that his kids have special needs -- cultural needs. This did not fly with me, but I can only vaguely pin down why. They will get an equitable education, to be sure, though not a perfect education. Nobody gets that, even at a private school.

I got tougher: If you think you should be able to take the tax money you now pay for public schools, and put it where you want, then should I, a childless man, be able to put my share where I want? My kids have special needs: they don't exist; can I put the money in my pocket?

He hadn't looked at it that way.

You see, the most effective way to get anything is to make sure that what's fair for one is fair for all. This is particularly true for religious liberty. But he seemed interested only in getting a leg up.

Okay, then, if people who organize into a religious group want to instruct their children in the ways of that faith, shouldn't the group itself establish a fund for the purpose of schooling its young, not unlike the way society as a whole educates its young?

His remark, to the effect that his group is small and does not have all that much money, reminded me of what Benjamin Franklin said: "When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not take care to support it so that its professors are obliged to call for help of the civil power, 'tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one." I let that one go.

I did leave him with one final challenge: What about the dignity of paying your way? Wouldn't that be a lesson more valuable than anything a child will learn in the classroom? At this point, I kid you not, the phone went silent.

Graphic Rule
Copyright ©1999 Cliff Walker; Portland, Oregon
(Some punctuation was altered for clarity.)