Welton Gaddy, a Baptist minister who heads the Interfaith Alliance, says the state’s plan to privatize public education jeopardizes religious freedom.

By Bob Allen

In an open letter Aug. 7, a Baptist pastor who heads a national interfaith organization criticized Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s school voucher plan as an attack on public education and religious liberty.

Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance and senior pastor for preaching and worship at Northminster (Baptist) Church in Monroe, La., objected strongly to the Republican governor’s plan to privatize public education. The plan will shift millions of tax dollars out of public schools to provide vouchers to poor and middle-class students to 120 private schools across Louisiana, including some small Bible-based schools that do not expose students to the theory of evolution.

“I was appalled to learn that private schools — funded with my taxes — will teach our children that evolution does not exist, using the fabled Loch Ness Monster as a ‘real’ example, from textbooks that state: ‘God created each type of fish, amphibian, and reptile as separate, unique animals. Any similarities that exist among them are due to the fact that one Master Craftsmen fashioned them all,’” Gaddy wrote in a letter printed in the Washington Post.

“Let me be clear: I am not appalled that a Christian school is teaching its students that God created the Earth,” Gaddy wrote. “Children in my church learn that every Sunday. I am appalled that these schools are teaching theology as science; and they’re doing so with government money, my tax dollars. Teaching the theology of Creationism is part of the mission of religious schools, and religious education more broadly — I defend with my life’s work their right to teach future generations about their faith. But they should not receive financial support from our government to do so.”

Gaddy, who has held leadership positions in both the Alliance of Baptists and Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, said one thing often overlooked in voucher discussions is the negative impact they can have on religious schools.

“In the short term, having new revenue streams is of course helpful to private schools, but the fact is that with government money comes government regulation, which can open religious schools up to all kinds of threats to their autonomy that it is in religion’s best interest to avoid,” he said.

He said vouchers also create competition between religious groups for government funds, and put the state in a position to prefer one religion over another. A case in point, he said, is one representative who changed her mind about supporting school vouchers after learning that not only Christian groups could receive the funding, but Muslim groups as well.

“In short, the school vouchers system you have allowed to be implemented in our state embodies everything that is wrong with school vouchers as a whole and threatens the integrity of both religion and government,” Gaddy wrote. “I hope that you will take a step back and see that what you are doing is propelling education in Louisiana back to a level that will decrease even more our abominable ranking when it comes to education in our nation. You are hurting the state, the education of our children, and broad-siding an affront to the values of religious freedom that most of us hold dear.”

Teacher unions and local school boards have filed a lawsuit over the constitutionality of the Louisiana voucher plan, praised in a Wall Street Journal op-ed as “the first to effectively dismantle a public education monopoly.”

Jindal, raised as a Hindu by parents who arrived in the United States from India shortly before his birth, converted to Catholicism while in high school. He is often mentioned on a short list of possible vice presidential running mate picks for GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney.