by Edd Doerr
On this 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy we all have a variety of thoughts on the truncated career of this young President. One thing that is not brought up enough is his strong position on one of today's most vexing issues, religious liberty. Unforgettable is JFK's remarks to the Texas ministers during the 1960 campaign: "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute ... where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference." My friend and strong church-state separationist writer Paul Blanshard met with Kennedy shortly after he took office and discussed the matter. He left with no doubt that Kennedy was sincere.
Unfortunately, Kennedy was unable to get his federal aid to education plan through Congress because of opposition by Southern segregationists. But his successor, Lyndon Johnson, was able to do so in 1965 because of the 1964 Goldwater debacle. Curiously, Johnson's Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) contained some federal aid for religious private schools, though Leo Pfeffer, the leading separation expert, said that LBJ had the votes to pass education aid confined to public schools.
Nixon tried to push.school vouchers and did get an experimental plan through for the Alum Rock district in California, but the effort was a complete flop and vanished into the void. Jimmy Carter held firm to JFK's position, but Reagan and the two Bushes had no problem with diverting public funds to faith-based private schools. Obama agrees with Kennedy on this and would like to end the voucher plan in DC.
But this is 2013 and the battles are heating up. Since 1982 Americans for Religious Liberty (ARL) has been working with other organizations to halt and roll back the diversion of public funds to faith-based and other private schools and we cannot predict the outcome of this war to defend the wall of separation between church and state built by Jefferson and Madison. Readers of this comment can help fight this crucial battle by supporting ARL. Check our web site -- arlinc.org.