Debate on scholarships to religious schools turns personal

March 7, 2023, midnight ·

Senator John Fredrickson, left, speaks with Nebraska Catholic Conference lobbyist Tom Venzor, right, in the Capitol Rotunda
Sen. John Fredrickson, left, speaks with Nebraska Catholic Conference lobbyist Tom Venzor, right, in the Capitol Rotunda

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Debate over taxpayer-funded scholarships for students to attend private or religious schools continued Tuesday in the Legislature. The discussion turned personal when a gay state senator questioned whether his child could attend Catholic schools.

The debate centers on Sen. Lou Ann Linehan’s proposal for “opportunity scholarships.” Those are scholarships, funded by donations that people would get tax credits for, to send students to private or religious schools.

Supporters say those scholarships would give students whose parents can’t currently afford private school an alternative if public schools aren’t working for them. But Sen. Megan Hunt said that’s not what the bill’s really about.

“It's not about if a school is good or bad or whatever, it's about donations. This bill is about government pressure to artificially influence the market to change the value of donations that rich people and corporations can make to support one type of school,” Hunt said.

Under the bill, taxpayers get a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for donating to scholarship funds. At the upper limit, someone who owes $200,000 in taxes could donate half that amount to a scholarship fund. That person’s tax burden would be reduced by $100,000.

But Linehan argued really rich people can simply create foundations to use their income, tax-free. She said no rich donors would make money by helping poor kids go to private school.

“This is a program that if you owe $2,000, you can use $1,000 as a donation to an organization who will give the money to a family with a child who would like to have a choice. Somebody said, I make money off this. I don't make money. I don't get the money. The money goes” to the scholarship fund, Linehan said.

Much of Tuesday’s debate repeated arguments made on the floor Monday. But one dramatic moment occurred when Sen. John Fredrickson, who is married to another man, wondered if a scholarship would be available to send his son to a Catholic school.

“It is not clear to me whether or not my son could attend a majority of these schools, not because of academic merit, but based on the fact that he has two dads. It's also not clear to me if my husband and I would be allowed on campus of a school. I actually asked the Catholic Conference this morning in the Rotunda, I asked ‘Is my son eligible to attend Catholic school in Omaha?’ He has to get back to me. I asked ‘Assuming he is eligible, can my husband and I attend events at the school?’ He's gonna get back to me, Fredrickson said.

Shortly after making that speech, Fredrickson got a note that Tom Venzor, lobbyist from the Catholic Conference, asking to talk to Fredrickson in the Rotunda.

At issue is the Omaha Archdiocese guidelines that say parents and students should agree to abide by policies set by the parish or school. The guidelines indicate that not all families are a proper fit for Catholic schools, especially if a family has “open hostility or dissent from Catholic teaching.”

After he talked to Fredrickson, Venzor was asked by Nebraska Public Media News if a gay couple could send their child to parochial school and still be consistent with Catholic values.

“Nothing in the archdiocesan policy categorically prohibits that. The Catholic Church has a fundamental teaching on marriage and human sexuality and when students, when parents come to our schools, there's an expectation in coming to our schools, we're going to uphold those values. We're not going to shy away from teaching those values to students. And there's also an expectation that the parents are gonna help to uphold those values. And so those are going to be discussions that probably …(would) be had with teachers, with principals, with pastors potentially, just in terms of what that looks like in the day-to-day, but… nothing in the archdiocesan policy categorically prohibits that,” Venzor said.

Back in debate on the legislative floor, Linehan said opponents of the bill can continue to filibuster against her scholarship proposal and other parts of Gov. Jim Pillen’s education proposals. But, she said, that would simply result in a small group of senators working out a deal that everybody would have to vote on, as happened last year with tax legislation.

“We can work on this bill, and we can work on school funding, and we can fight and not get to cloture on any of it ‘til May 20. But in the end you're all gonna have to vote for something you don't like and something you like, because that's the way this works,” she said.

Debate on the scholarship proposal is scheduled to continue Wednesday, when a first-round vote is expected.