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A Question About the First Amendment (or a Question About Logical Consistency)

Earlier today my son, Thomas, and I were talking about NPR. This conversation led us both to spot an inconsistency – or at least a tension – in the argument made by anyone who, while supporting government funding of NPR (and PBS), opposes school vouchers (or schooling tax credits) on the grounds that the First amendment to the U.S. Constitution will be violated because some vouchers and credits can and will be used to purchase education at religious schools.

As a refresher, here’s the full text of the First amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Note that among the freedoms guaranteed by this Constitutional provision are freedom of religion and freedom of the press. The authors and ratifiers of this amendment wisely sought, among other goals, to prevent the federal government from exercising influence over religion and over the press.

If the First amendment is violated when federal taxpayer funds are channeled to schools operated by churches – channeled with no intention by the state (or anyone else) either to give any religion an advantage or to deny the people of any religion the freedom to worship as they please – why is the First amendment not violated when federal taxpayer funds are channeled to organizations that are part of “the press”?

Put differently, if it is Constitutionally permissible for Uncle Sam to have a policy through which some of its tax revenues are channeled to support some media outlets, why is it Constitutionally impermissible for Uncle Sam or the states to have policies through which some of their tax revenues are channeled to support religious schools?

Indeed, if there is any Constitutionally relevant difference between the two cases, it seems to me that federal-government funding of NPR and PBS – funding made through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting – is more Constitutionally dubious than are school vouchers. NPR and PBS were created by the CPB, itself created by the federal government and whose funding comes almost entirely from Congressional appropriations. In contrast, none of the religious schools, or religions, that receive, or that would receive, funding through school vouchers are creatures of the state.

The principal purpose of school vouchers is to promote schooling, not religious belief or churches. Any promotion of religious belief or churches is indirect. In contrast, the principal purpose of government funding that goes to NPR and PBS is to promote journalism. Government funding that goes to NPR and PBS is meant to affect the operation of the press in a rather direct manner, while government funding that goes to churches through school vouchers is not meant to affect the operation of churches or the acceptance or rejection of any theology.

For the record, I support complete separation of school and state, as well as complete separation of the media and state.


I feel sure that many other people must have noted the inconsistency identified above. But I’ve not encountered any such explication. If readers know any such explication, please direct me to it.


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