June 28, 2024

Allan W. Vestal: Education savings accounts used at religious schools violate the Iowa Constitution

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Allan Vestal is Dwight D. Opperman Distinguished Professor of Law Emeritus at Drake University Law School. In this piece for the Des Moines Register he lays out the trouble with Iowa’s voucher program.

This year, Iowa gave $107 million in public money to religious schools. By 2026, over a third of a billion dollars will flow annually from our state treasury to religious schools. These payments violate the Iowa Constitution compulsion guarantee: “nor shall any person be compelled to … pay … taxes … for … the maintenance of any minister, or ministry.” Religious schools are ministries, and their teachers are ministers, according to the Iowa Supreme Court, the schools themselves, and the United States Supreme Court.

The 1918 Iowa Supreme Court case Knowlton v. Baumhover involved the public school at Maple River in Carroll County. The school board sold the public-school building and rented space in a building owned by “Jos. Kuemper.” It hired “Miss Martin” to teach. It was a sham. “Jos. Kuemper” was Father Joseph Kuemper, the local parish priest. The rented space was in the St. Francis Catholic School. And the teacher, “Miss Martin,” was Sister Estella of the Sisters of Charity. Thereafter, the Maple River “public” school was taught by nuns in clerical garb, in classrooms adorned with crucifixes and other religious icons. The students were taught the Catholic catechism and participated in religious services.

These changes, the Court found, were “a practical elimination of the public school as such and a transfer of its name and its revenues to … the parochial school.” In response, the court declared that parents have no right to ask the state to “expend money acquired by public taxation in training his children religiously,” and that churches are “denied the right to use … public funds for the advancement of religious or sectarian teaching.” The court ruled the compulsion guarantee “forbids … all taxation for ecclesiastical support,” and said that a religious school “could not lawfully be supported or aided by public funds even in the form of payment for tuition given to the children.”

As of 2023, there were 183 accredited private schools in Iowa. Of these, 176 were religious, accounting for over 98% of the private school enrollment. Many describe themselves as ministries, their teachers as ministers. For example, Kuemper Catholic refers to “the ministry of Catholic education,” Sully Christian speaks of “this important ministry,” and Hillcrest Academy “the ministry of Christian education.”


Over a century ago, our Supreme Court held it violated the compulsion guarantee of the Iowa Constitution to give public funds to the St. Francis Catholic School in Maple River. Today, the state gives millions of dollars of public funds to religious schools. The compulsion guarantee hasn’t changed since 1918. How can it have been unconstitutional to fund the St. Francis School in 1918 and constitutional to fund religious schools today? The answer is simple, it can’t. Giving public funds to religious schools violates the Iowa Constitution. It should end.

Read the full article here. 

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