When Religious Extremists Take Over, Vouchers Rule and Bodily Freedom Dies

When Religious Extremists Take Over, Vouchers Rule and Bodily Freedom Dies

Arizonans are reeling after the April 9th Arizona Supreme Court decision to abolish nearly all abortions in the state, reinstating a Civil War-era law and giving Arizona one of the strictest bans on freedom and autonomy in the US. But what does this have to do with private school vouchers? Actually, everything.

Vouchers & Anti-Abortion Efforts: The Venn Diagram is a Circle

For decades, the same organizations spending millions to push vouchers in Arizona (under the guise of “choice”) have also fought tooth and nail against a woman’s right to choose. It’s no coincidence that Arizona now has the most expansive universal ESA voucher program and also the most restrictive abortion ban. This is the direct result of millions of dark money dollars deliberately spent to elect an extremist Arizona state legislature that will push extremist laws to advance an extremist platform based on Christian nationalism. 

It’s simple: Abortion bans and religious school vouchers are spreading like wildfire across American red states because they are the long-term priorities of the Christian Nationalist Right. 

The same groups that fight for school vouchers also spend big to restrict reproductive freedoms. The Betsy DeVos-backed American Federation for Children alone has spent millions in Arizona to push for private school vouchers — and other deep-pocketed dark money groups like the Heritage Foundation, the Alliance Defending Freedom, and the Center for Arizona Policy have joined them. These groups have three things in common: they are propped up by far-right billionaires, they believe America was founded as a Christian nation that should be guided by Christian laws based on their interpretation of the Bible as God’s truth, and they want private school vouchers to “advance God’s kingdom.”

Case in Point

The case that led to this week’s AZ Supreme Court ruling was brought by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal advocacy group based in Scottsdale that has for decades been a major player in legal battles and culture wars across the country. 

Michael Farris, President & CEO of the Alliance Defending Freedom from 2017 to 2022, made remarks to a secret group of far-right Christian millionaires that were recently exposed by the Washington Post

In the tapes, Farris said he wanted to take down the education system as we know it today” in order to usher in universal vouchers. He blamed public schools for teaching a secular worldview that amounts to a godless religion and proposed lawsuits alleging that schools’ teachings about gender identity and race are unconstitutional, which would lead to a Supreme Court decision that would mandate the right of parents to claim billions of tax dollars for private education or homeschooling (aka, vouchers).

What Do Vouchers Have to Do With Repro Rights — and Why?

In 2017, when out-of-state special interests first tried to push universal vouchers onto Arizona via SB1431, the groups that lobbied in support were the Center for Arizona Policy, the Goldwater Institute, the Institute for Justice, Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, and DeVos-funded American Federation for Children. In 2022, when the Legislature discarded the will of Arizona voters (who rejected SB1431 on the ballot in 2018 by a 2-1 vote) by expanding ESA vouchers universally via HB2853, the exact same groups poured major dollars into defeating the effort once more. 

Cathi Herrod, Director of the far-right Center for Arizona Policy (CAP), was present at every voucher expansion hearing from 2017 to 2022. CAP’s mission is to “promote and defend the foundational values of life, marriage and family, and religious freedom” — and they spend their resources not only fighting against abortion access but also promoting vouchers. Private school vouchers are a vehicle for these Christian Nationalist ideas to take root. 

What better way to indoctrinate a future electorate than to set up a tax-funded system of private and homeschooling that instills their insular worldview? When these same extremists accuse public schools of “indoctrinating,” they’re merely telling us all what they intend to do themselves.

Arizona’s Stacked Supreme Court

The Supreme Court decision to enact the 1864 ban this week was a 4-2 decision, with Justices Bolick, King, Beene, Lopez in favor, Justices Brutinel and Timmer in dissent, and Justice Montgomery recused. This activist court has involved itself in what many observers agree are politically-driven opinions, most notably by rejecting Arizona’s Invest in Education Act ballot initiative in 2018, ruling K-12 funding in Prop 208 unconstitutional in 2022, and tossing the referendum of Ducey’s $2 billion tax cut for the wealthy from the ballot in 2022. 

That’s because it was designed to do exactly that: Governor Ducey stacked the court by adding two new seats. Five of the Supreme Court Justices were appointed by Ducey, with the other appointed by his predecessor, Gov Brewer. 

It’s important to note that Justice Bolick co-founded the Koch-funded Institute for Justice (IJ), which has long advocated for vouchers, in 1991. Beginning with Zelman v Harris in 2002, the Institute for Justice has litigated most private school voucher cases at the US Supreme Court and has defended numerous voucher schemes in Arizona and nationwide.  In 2004, Bolick joined the Alliance for School Choice, which would soon become DeVos’s American Federation for Children. 

After leaving IJ, Justice Bolick began working for Arizona’s Goldwater Institute, which has also pushed vouchers in Arizona and across numerous other states. There, he served as Vice President of Litigation from 2007 to 2016, when Ducey appointed him to the Arizona Supreme Court. In 2019, Bolick was accused of impropriety for attending an ALEC conference dinner with his wife, Rep. Shawnna Bolick (LD 2). 

What is the Playbook?

Much of the legislative action around school vouchers has focused on pushing taxpayer funding into church-run schools and microschools with no regulation around what is taught. As a result, Arizona taxpayer funding is now being used to push dangerous, anti-scientific religious curricula such as materials from Bob Jones University, Abeka, and Accelerated Christian Education. Analyses of these materials show they inaccurately portray events in Muslim and Catholic history while perpetuating anti-Semitic stereotypes. The materials speak disparagingly of Native Americans and Native culture. For instance, an ACE textbook referred to Manifest Destiny as spreading the gospel: “It was considered God’s will that this vastly superior American culture should spread to all corners of the North American continent… The benighted Indians would be among the many beneficiaries of God’s provision.”

Why? Vouchers are not the end goal. The end goal for these high-powered special interests is using taxpayer-funded religious education to “advance God’s kingdom” and to create a broader electorate that is open to Christian nationalist laws and government structures. The end goal of most of these groups is to have the Bible be the law of the land. And private school vouchers are a bullet train to speed America forward toward that vision.

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