Supporters: Faith-based legislation not voucher in disguise

By Greg Gelpi

Depending on whom one asks, Senate Resolution 560 will either allow religious charities to know when they can and can't receive state money or pave the way for private school vouchers.

"This resolution has nothing to do with (vouchers)," said Ga. 29th District Sen. Dan Lee, R-LaGrange. "The change it makes in the constitution will not allow vouchers."

SR 560, which passed the Georgia Senate 40-14 last week, would authorize a referendum allowing voters to choose whether to amend the state constitution. The proposed amendment would "repeal the prohibition against religious and sectarian denominations and institutions receiving public aid."

According to Lee and other proponents, including Gov. Sonny Perdue, the amendment would simply clarify the constitution to cover a practice that is already occurring legally in the state.

"Faith-based organizations are serving Georgians right now," said Lee, Perdue's Senate floor leader who is one of the co-sponsors of the bill. Published reports indicate that the state already funds up to $3 million worth of various programs conducted by faith-based organizations.

But opponents say the language of the amendment leaves open a door for state funding to be funneled to religious schools.

"At this particular point, in its present form, I do not support the bill," said 60th District Rep. Teresa Greene-Johnson, D-Lithonia. "I, like many educators, feel that religious schools should not receive taxpayer money, and that's because of our separation of state and church."

A former classroom teacher and now a library media specialist at a DeKalb school, Greene-Johnson said she can't support the bill if there is a chance that it could be interpreted to allow vouchers.

Although she said one of her sons attended a private school for two years (he and her other son graduated from public schools), she also said she made that choice knowing that she would have to pay.

Lee said he thinks the voucher issue is a red herring introduced by opponents of the bill to distract legislators from its real purpose.

"I think the discussion of vouchers in regard to SR 560 is misdirection by someone," he said. "All we're trying to do is align our constitution with the federal constitution."

He said that if the state repeals its prohibition on faith-based organizations receiving state aid, all the federal law that has attached itself to the issue of church-state separation would apply.

"Faith-based organizations will have some clarity as to what they can participate in and what they can't participate in," he said.

The proposed resolution pleases Capt. Curt Sayre, the commanding officer of the Salvation Army in Jonesboro.

"I'm all about it," Sayre said. "Anybody who wants to give us money I'm all about it."

The Salvation Army, a Christian-based organization, provides relief to those in need locally and throughout the world.

"Certainly, on the surface it looks like it could be awesome," Sayre said. "We'd be happy to take the money."

He said churches could use the money to serve the public better as well.

"It would certainly be great to get those funds to help people," Sayre said. "We would never have the right to say now you have to become part of the Salvation Army. That would be very very wrong."

He said First Baptist Church in Jonesboro has a free ministry for students after school and could benefit from state funding. The ministry keeps children out of trouble and provides computers for them to use.

State Rep. Darryl Jordan, D-Riverdale, said, though, he isn't sure whether he will support the resolution, fearing that the measure could open the way for school vouchers.

"That's important to me not to happen," Jordan, who serves on the House Education Committee, said. "I don't want anyone to think I'm anti-God."

Jordan called the resolution a "tool" of the Republicans to get the state to adopt a school voucher system.

"I'm still looking at it," he said. "I'm not sure how I'm going to vote on it."

If the resolution is approved by two-thirds of the 180 House members, the state's voters would go to the polls on the constitutional amendment in November.