| August 6, 2012

Disabled Children Are Victims of Ideology

In contemporary America it is important to understand the errors of ideology—treating ideas as principles.

A principle is a general rule of good action (do good, be honest, help those in need). Principles are absolutes.

An idea is not an absolute rule—it’s simply one particular way of living according to principles.

We fall into error when we treat our ideas, or means, as the principles or ends.

In our day the idea of separation of church and state has metamorphosed into an absolute principle: the government should be utterly separated from the church. A case presently before the Oklahoma Supreme Court demonstrates the effect of this ideology.

In 2010 Oklahoma enacted the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship Program for Children with Disabilities. This program provides scholarships for disabled children to apply towards private-school tuition in the event that their parents decide a private school could better serve the special needs of their disabled children. But some school districts don’t want to pay the scholarship funds to parents who choose private schools affiliated with a church or other religiously affiliated organization. They alleged that paying such scholarships would violate a provision of the state constitution prohibiting direct funding of churches by the state.

In the past, Oklahoma has treated this constitutional rule appropriately as a means and not an end. Several Oklahoma court decisions have sanctioned interactions and transactions between the government and churches for legitimate public purposes. The state can buy property, and pay for services rendered, from churches and religiously affiliated organizations.

When the state paid to entrust the care of orphaned children to an institution affiliated with a church, the Oklahoma Supreme Court found the transaction unobjectionable. Although the result is that money passes from the government to a church or religiously affiliated institution, the court, as well as Oklahoma’s attorney general applying the case law, has realized that such a fact did not mean the government was setting up and funding a state-controlled church.

Put another way, the Court did not turn the idea of restricting government funding that could be used to control a church into an absolute principle that no money could ever pass between the two.

But some school districts are trying to turn the idea into a principle: the government can have no contact with the church even if in the best interests of little children with special needs. In order not to endanger the ideology of impenetrable separation, disabled children who have received the help they need must be denied money the state set aside for their care simply because it can be obtained from a school connected to a religious organization.

There is a way to set this error right. The Court can return the rule to its appropriate status as an idea. That way the state of Oklahoma can not only sell a building to a church or send orphans to religious institutions but can also pay appropriated scholarship money to the families of disabled children who choose church-affiliated schools.

Brian McCall (J.D., University of Pennsylvania) is a law professor at the University of Oklahoma.

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