Crusade In The Classroom: Clashes Over Religion In Public Schools Plague Georgia And Texas

Some people, it seems, just won’t accept that fact that public schools are for teaching, not preaching.

Disputes over religion in public schools are perennial. Some people, it seems, just won’t accept that fact that public schools are for teaching, not preaching.

Three recent developments bear watching.

First off, in Texas, the state legislature may be on the verge of another go-round in the ever-popular “let’s-display-the-Ten-Commandments-in-the-public-schools” crusade.

State Rep. Dan Flynn has introduced a bill that would permit public schools to post the Ten Commandments in “prominent” locations in classrooms.

Flynn told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that such postings would be a “patriotic exercise” and added, “This is necessary to protect teachers who have the desire to establish that the country’s historical background is based on Judeo-Christian traditions. This might be a reassuring step to the people that we are wanting to maintain and hold on to those historical findings of how our country was founded.”

Continued Flynn, “And anything that helps build the morals of our young people would be helpful. For too long, we’ve forsaken what our Judeo-Christian heritage has been. Our rights do come from God, not from government.”

Do we really have to go through this again? In 1980 the Supreme Court struck down a Kentucky law that mandated display of the Ten Commandments in public schools in the Stone v. Graham case. While the high court has since upheld Ten Commandments displays at statehouses and city halls under certain conditions, it has never said that public schools can get into the business of pushing religion.

Flynn’s comments expose his real motivation: He believes that displaying the Commandments might affect the morals of young people. That means his crusade is about religion, not patriotism. If Flynn wants to promote patriotism, he would do better to mandate that schools post the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. (Another plus is that there’s only one version of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights; there are three versions of the Ten Commandments.)

The second problem is also from Texas. Some charter schools there are venturing into the religion business. The Dallas Morning News reports that 20 percent of the state’s charters have religious ties.

The newspaper profiles Advantage Academy in Duncanville. Students at the school, says the Morning News, “follow biblical principles, talk openly about faith and receive guidance from a gregarious former pastor who still preaches when he speaks.”

We’ve said it before: Charter schools are publicly funded institutions. While they are free from some of the regulations that are imposed on traditional public schools, charters are not free from the commands of the Constitution.

These schools need to get out of the business of promoting religion. If they don’t, a lawsuit is inevitable.

Finally, it looks like we’re going to need to keep a close eye on Georgia, where the new chief of staff of the state Education Department is a former staffer of TV preacher Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice.

Joel Thornton is already off to a shaky start. On a personal blog, he bemoaned the lack of religion in public schools, writing, “We no longer have that moral center.  Now, we find ourselves in a culture that not only does not believe, but actually mocks belief in one God.  We have gone from the place where it is okay to make fun of belief in God in limited cases, like a Hollywood movie or a book.  At the same time, it was not okay to make fun of the core beliefs that surrounded the belief in God.”

Continued Thornton, “Now we do not have the mockery limited to Hollywood, it is the core of how our average citizen thinks.  We cannot offer any type of spiritual help to struggling youth because we have no place for God in our schools.  We have nothing to base our moral core on because we suddenly do not believe in moral absolutes.”

Thornton’s preferred method of education is home-schooling. Call me old-fashioned, but I’ve always believed that it would be best if the people who work to oversee public education actually believed in and supported public education. I guess that’s not the way they roll in Georgia these days.

The struggle to defend separation of church and state in public schools will never end. At AU, we monitor these issues constantly, and our Legal Department responds when necessary. It appears that Texas and Georgia are in for an especially close look.

And here’s the final irony: Both Texas and Georgia aren’t exactly showering money on public schools right now. In Georgia, limits on class sizes were lifted earlier this year. One dad reported 50 students in his child’s classes. Maybe the state’s education officials ought to deal with that rather than go on a religious crusade.

P.S. “The Wall of Separation” will be on hiatus until Monday, Nov. 29. Happy Thanksgiving!