Article 1, Section 6 of the Indiana Constitution says, simply, “No money shall be drawn from the treasury, for the benefit of any religious or theological institution.”
Supporters of Indiana’s school voucher program insist that doesn’t mean the state can’t fund religion. Vouchers are state funds, after all; and most of the schools getting them are religious institutions. Some law professors and school-law experts say the Indiana Supreme Court is likely to declare the voucher program acceptable.
But it seems unlikely that the men who drafted and approved Indiana’s constitution would agree. Here’s their explanation for what they were trying to do, as recorded in the journal of the 1850-51 constitutional convention:
“ … to secure the rights of conscience and prevent the imposition, on the citizen, of any tax to support any ministry or mode of worship against his consent, it is provided, that no person shall be rendered incompetent as a witness, in consequences of his opinions in matters of religion; and that no money shall be drawn from the treasury for the benefit of any religious or theological institution.”
In other words, it was a matter of individual rights – Article 1, Section 6 is part of the Bill of Rights – that taxpayers should not be required to support religious institutions.
Another way of getting at the historical meaning of the phrase is to look at the debates about public education that took place in the mid-19th century. The constitution also requires Indiana to establish “a general and uniform system of Common Schools, wherein tuition shall be without charge, and equally open to all.”
According to the late Indiana University historian Donald Carmony, the state’s embrace of free and universal public education was largely the result of one man: Caleb Mills, a Dartmouth-educated founder of Wabash College who delivered annual messages on education to the legislature. Mills lamented Indiana’s high illiteracy rate, the worst in the North, and took strong exception to the pre-1850 practice of providing public funds for private and sectarian schools.
“Mills emphasized three items,” Carmony writes in Indiana 1816-50: The Pioneer Era. “First, state and local tax money should be used only for support of public common schools. Second, morality and religion could and should be discussed and sustained in such schools. Third, if state and local money were made available for denominational and private schools, it would be very dangerous to the ‘social and political fabric …’”
Indiana legislators, by adopting the voucher program in 2011, chose to disregard the plain language of the constitution. The Supreme Court may think that’s OK. Caleb Mills, were he around today, most definitely would not.