In 1802, President Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to the Danbury, Connecticut Baptist Association where he argued that the "act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" had established a "wall of separation between church and state."
While Jefferson's letter does not carry the authority of law, in 1878 the United States Supreme Court in Reynolds v. United States declared that Jefferson's position "may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the [first] amendment." This interpretation of the First Amendment was affirmed by the Supreme Court repeatedly including in Everson v. Board of Education (1947), Engel v. Vitale (1962), and Epperson v. Arkansas (1968).
But that is not stopping New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo's attempt to knock down the "wall of separation" between church and state by providing financial support for religious schools. Cuomo's plan is really a backdoor effort that tries to avoid the "wall of separation" by offering tax credits to individuals who make donations to religious schools for scholarships. Not only is his plan a threat to basic constitutional principles, it is a threat to public education, already underfunded because of a Cuomo supported cap on local school taxes. The tax credit could allow donors to private religious schools to be reimbursed by the state for up to 90% of a donation of $1 million.
I receive one or two fliers in the mail every day calling on me to contact my Assembly representative to demand that they support the tax credit. Meanwhile television is flooded with expensive ads featuring Cuomo that demand the Assembly endorse the plan. My bet is that Andy Cuomo's assault on the wall of separation is part of his plan to run for President as a kind of right-wing Republo-Democrat half-elephant half-donkey "Donkephant." A recent biography of Cuomo described Andy as ambitious and a "brilliant tactician" who wants to be President, but also as a "control-obsessed" and a person who does not tolerate criticism.
However, before he can run for President, Andy has to deal with some problems.
First, he can't run against Hillary Clinton in the Democrat primaries because he needs her supporters and funders to endorse his candidacy, so he has to wait impatiently on the sidelines hoping her campaign implodes. Not surprisingly, given his hunger for campaign dollars, Cuomo's war on the "wall of separation" is backed by a group called the Coalition for Opportunity in Education that includes wealthy financiers and several billionaires.
Second, Andy needs to distract people from the political corruption he has failed to clean up in New York politics. He started and prematurely suspended the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption. But despite his efforts to hide business as usual in the state capital, three of the most powerful individuals in the legislature, former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, former Majority Leader of the State Senate Dean Skelos, and current Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie have either been indicted or are under investigation. That may be one reason Andy was busy burrowing through tunnels at the Clinton Correctional Facility trying to help capture two escaped prisoners.
Third, Andrew Cuomo is a divorced man, formally married to a Kennedy, who needs an annulment from the Roman Catholic Church so he can marry the woman he has lived with for many years. In his run for President Cuomo will also need at least tacit support from Roman Catholic Church officials to help him secure right-leaning Catholic voters. New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan is a major supporter of the tax credit and has appeared with Cuomo repeatedly as they try to push it through the state legislature.
One of the things that disturbs me is that I can find no evidence that any major Democratic Party officials in New York State including Mayor Bill de Blasio and Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer speaking out against the tax credit plan and in favor of the separation of church and state. That is amazing because Schumer seems to speak out on everything else.
On the other hand, my assembly member, Jim Brennan of the 44th District in Brooklyn, is a strong opponent of the Parental Choice in Education Act. My message to Jim is "Hold On and Vote NO!"