In this state, people across the political spectrum agree that things are best done The Idaho Way. In the case of potentially sending taxpayer dollars to religious schools, our state’s history is far more instructive than looking to other states’ experiences to understand the consequences of entangling public resources with religion. In Idaho, the wounds caused by these entanglements run deeper than in most states. Before Idaho turns public dollars over to religious groups, a review of some of our history is in order.
The use of public funds to support, and repress, religion condemned early Idaho to decades of resentment and division. Should one religion own the water, a commodity more precious than gold – was at the center of one controversy. In 1895, a group of leaders of one religious group incorporated The Peoples Canal near Blackfoot on arid land allotted through the Carey Act of 1894. Critics of the canal, including those from the competing American Falls system, argued that operators could choose to provide precious water exclusively to church members (whether that was their practice or not) contrary to the open-to-all intention of the Carey Act. The feud over whether one religion should directly benefit from government support triggered bitterness, ignited anger, and created deep divides between members and non-members of this church. Early Idaho’s infamous water wars were, in part, a sectarian battle.
The production of another precious, government-subsidized, commodity – sugar – was at the heart of another dispute over the distribution of resources to one religious group. Early Idaho’s sugar beet farmers chose (or were told) to sell to companies based on their religious, or non-religious, affiliations. One sugar company operated by members of one faith in a neighboring state grew into several Idaho-based, faith-operated concerns. Years-long court battles and wranglings with the Federal Trade Commission were necessary to squelch disputes. What are now public companies in Idaho were once under the exclusive purview of one religion – a religion that would then be repressed by the very government that had supported its enterprises.
Even one of Idaho’s most famous early leaders, Fredrick DuBois, had to admit that opponents of this religion used one almost universally despised doctrine of the church as an excuse to curb the religion’s growing political domination; power subsidized by the public. The hand that had fed the church’s commercial concerns now was used to criminalize members, strip them of their voting rights, and send 45 Bingham County men to the Penitentiary. Public resources were now spent against the church, elections and the Legislature were in chaos (competing slates of elected officials were sent to the statehouse), and Bingham County was cleaved out of Oneida to separate members of one faith from their enemies.
Few states have Idaho’s painful history to teach them the consequences of attempting to govern under the heavy burden of using public resources for – and against – religion. I imagine sending public funds to one canal company in Moreland in 1895 seemed innocuous enough, just as giving a few million dollars in tax credits to religious schools may seem today. Idaho has the history to know better. It is my hope that today’s Idaho Way prompts Legislators to allocate public resources to public entities, including schools that are open to all, and that we have put the old ways behind us.