By Gregory Kristof
Sectarian feuds reignited in Louisiana last week when lawmakers debated whether to provide federal funding for Muslim and Christian schools under a new education bill, according to Think Progress.
Under the bill, called the Minimim Foundations Program and passed into law last week by the Louisiana legislature, students at failing public high schools can use government-paid vouchers to enroll in alternate schools -- including those that are private or religiously affiliated. The program represents a bold endeavor by the state to privatize public education.
Stakes escalated last week when, to the frustration of some lawmakers, the Islamic School of Greater New Orleans applied for federal funds under the voucher program. Republican state Rep. Kenneth Havard objected to the Islamic School's request for 38 government-paid student vouchers, saying he opposed any bill that "will fund Islamic teaching," the Associated Press reports.
"I won't go back home and explain to my people that I supported this," he said.
"It'll be the Church of Scientology next year," Democratic state Rep. Sam Jones told AP.
The Islamic School of Greater New Orleans withdrew its request for vouchers before the bill went to vote.
Critics have pointed out that while the potential diversion of federal funds toward a Muslim school generated controversy among legislators, the state was already slotted under the new voucher program to provide millions of dollars to schools run by Christian churches.
The New Living Word School near Ruston, for example, is a church-run school that had been approved for $2.7 million of taxpayer money under the Minimum Foundations Program. The New Living Word School was granted permission to take 315 school vouchers-- the largest number for any school -- even though it has no library, and students reportedly spend most of their day watching Biblically-themed DVDs.
Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal is also facing scrutiny, as two groups havefiled lawsuits that challenge the governor's bold education package, which calls for using public school dollars to fund private and parochial school vouchers. If passed, Jindal's program would fund tuition for poor and middle-class children at more than 120 Louisiana private schools, including small, Bible-based church schools. Public schools, however, would lose a portion of state funding every time a student moves from a public to private school under the program.
The controversy over the New Living Word School and the Islamic School of Greater New Orleans comes at a time in which religious and secular tensions are running high in the South.
In neighboring Mississippi, Gov. Phil Bryant recently advocated for non-denominational school prayer "at some point." The Republican Methodist governor said in his speech to about 300 high school students that school prayer would "let people know there is a God." He said that although he would not take legal action to pursue the issue, he hopes that one day school prayer would be common.
In South Carolina, the Freedom From Religion Foundation and one of its local members filed a lawsuit last week against School District Five of Lexington and Richland counties over a district policy that sets benediction and invocation practices for school events.
The plaintiff, Matthew Nielson, filed the lawsuit after an initial letter of complaint voicing constitutional concerns was rejected by the district. The legal complaint indicts the district for "excessive governmental entanglement with religion."
This rebellion against the alleged intrusion of faith in schools raises the question of whether state funding for the New Ward School and other faith-based schools under Louisiana's new program will stoke similar fears of mingling between church and state.