AUSTIN (BNG)—One way to fix the troubled public-school system in Texas is making education funds available to church-based private schools, a group of pastors including Ed Young of Second Baptist Church in Houston and Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church in Dallas claimed in a brief to the Supreme Court of Texas.
But Gus Reyes, director of Texas Baptists’ Christian Life Commission countered, speaking on behalf of the “90 percent of Texas children who attend public schools” and urging the court to “hold the Legislature accountable and side with the millions of school children who depend on their neighborhood schools.”
U.S. Pastor Council, a conservative Texas-based group known for opposing Houston’s equal rights ordinance banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, recently entered another fray over education funding.The
Their brief asks the court to uphold a 2014 judgment by State District Judge John Dietz striking down Texas’ school finance system. It says the legislature failed to deliver its constitutional obligation to provide an “efficient system of free public schools.”
Many pastors in the coalition “are deeply involved in K-12 education,” both through public and church-based private schools, the brief argues. They “therefore have a vested interest in addressing the profound issues threatening children’s education by the lack of affordable opportunity for choosing the best school for each child.”
The U.S. Pastor Council, the brief adds, “advocates for education reform that places both responsibility and opportunity in the hands of parents, demands academic and moral excellence of our youth and provides equal opportunity for those standards, regardless of the socio-economic status of the family being served.”
“We support and applaud good public schools, of which there are many,” the pastors say. But “parents have the God-given fundamental right to direct the education and upbringing of their own children.”
Nothing in the state constitution requires an “efficient system of public free schools” must be operated solely by government employees, the brief says. Excluding religious providers from the current system of public education “severely implicates religious liberty,” it adds.
“Is the exclusion of religious schools based on religious bigotry?” the brief asks, claiming there are no valid economic or educational reasons.
“Thus, the exclusion of religious schools for no valid economic reason demonstrates a religious bias and hostility and prevents the free exercise of religion,” the brief argues. “Declaring the current system inefficient and that an efficient system must include all qualified suppliers without regard to religion, will avoid the religious issue and clearly not violate the Establishment Clause.”
Diverting public funds to religious schools
Pastors for Texas Children, an organization started by longtime Texas Baptist pastor Charles Foster Johnson, countered the brief. It reacted with dismay that “some local church leaders continue to push for the diversion of public funds for their private, religious schools.”
In its own brief filed with the court, Pastors for Texas Children asserted the creation of a second, parallel private system of education in Texas would result in neglect of public education and violate the Texas Constitution.
“The exclusion of religious schools from the public education system is not a violation of religious liberty,” the Pastors for Texas Children brief states.
Tax money for private religious schools would sap dollars desparately needed by public schools open to all children, and public funding for private schools actually would undercut the distinctive mission of religious schools, the brief asserts.
“The last thing our fine public schools need if more dollars drained away from them, and the last thing our fine private schools need is the government intervention and oversight that will inevitably and necessarily follow the public money they receive,” it states.
Public schools unlock chains of poverty
Reyes noted longstanding CLC support for public education in Texas, saying ensuring the quality of public schools is critical to children’s future and the state’s economic growth.
“Texas public schools serve an increasingly diverse and economically disadvantaged population; this means that more resources will be required to ensure these students receive the same quality education afforded to their more affluent peers,” he said. “We believe in the promise of public education in Texas—that every child is worthy of a quality education, because education is the key to unlocking the chains of poverty.
“Unfortunately, the Texas Legislature has failed in the last several years to keep its promise to Texas school children. We pray that the Texas Supreme Court will hold the legislature accountable and side with the millions of school children who depend on their neighborhood schools.”
Brief ‘redefines religious liberty’
Dan Quinn, communications director at the Texas Freedom Network, said the U.S. Pastor Council brief twists and redefines “religious liberty” so much that “the term itself is in danger of becoming almost meaningless.”
“If tax dollars aren’t funneled into sectarian schools, somehow that’s a violation of religious freedom,” he summarized the argument in an interview with Welton Gaddy on State of Belief Radio Aug. 29. “That just sort of turns religious freedom on its head.”
The U.S. Pastor Council brief was filed without charge by attorney Briscoe Cain. He lives in the Houston area and is running for state representative with endorsements including retired appeals court judge Paul Pressler, a key figure in the “conservative resurgence” in the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1980s and 1990s.
Claims support from 1,000 churches
The brief was filed on behalf of The U.S. Pastor Council, which claims support from more than 1,000 churches committed “to address social, cultural, policy and justice issues of concern from a biblical perspective.” Its Texas leadership, also known as the Texas Pastor Council, represents some of the state’s largest congregations, including Hyde Park Baptist Church in Austin, led by Senior Pastor Kie Bowman.
Johnson, who serves as pastor at Bread Fellowship in Fort Worth, launched Pastors for Texas Children both as a ministry to local schools, principals, teachers, staff and schoolchildren and as an advocacy group supporting public education and social justice for children.
“We now have over 1,100 signed pastors, ministers, lay leaders and educators to help in the fight to support our neighborhood public schools,” Johnson reported.
In a tweet posted Sept. 1, Pastors for Texas Children said: “It is morally outrageous for such a rich state to be debating whether or not our pittance for educating our children is enough.”
With additional reporting by Managing Editor Ken Camp
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was edited after it originally was posted to include a response from Texas Baptists’ Christian Life Commission and additional information from Pastors for Texas Children.