Lesson In The Law

Public Schools Are For Teaching, Not Preaching

Millions of children all over the United States are returning to school right about now. These youth come from all varieties of the Christian religion, as well as non-Christian faiths such as Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Wicca and others. Some of them are non-religious.

It should be obvious that with diversity such as this, any effort to use public schools to promote a specific religious perspective is bound to fail. But that doesn’t stop the Religious Right.

Aggressive and well-funded Religious Right groups continue to view the public schools as a “mission field.” They believe only their interpretation of religion is valid, and they demand access to other people’s children to spread it.

Their schemes violate the Constitution and the rights of parents. Parents should be free to decide what religion (if any) their children are exposed to. No school official should be allowed to meddle in that relationship by pressuring a young person to adopt different beliefs.

The Religious Right’s constant attempts to “Christianize” (as they narrowly define that faith) public schools also threatens the freedom to learn. Over the years, Religious Right groups have worked to remove comprehensive sex education from schools, ban books they deem “immoral,” water down the teaching of evolution and rewrite U.S. history to promote discredited “Christian nation” concepts. These overtures have only served to tamp down students’ academic achievements.

Public schools face numerous challenges these days. Many systems are grappling with budget cuts and classroom teachers find they have to do more with less. The last thing our schools need is a series of divisive “culture war” battles over prayer, Ten Commandments postings, creationism and other Religious Right pet issues. These fights end up wasting time, money and other resources that could be devoted to classroom instruction.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled nearly 50 years ago that public schools have no business promoting prayer, devotional Bible reading and other acts of worship. Our schools welcome a variety of children and must leave theology to the home. Public school students have the right to pray or study religious texts during their free time, but no young person can be compelled to take part in school-sponsored worship.

That is the law, and we’re a better nation for it. It’s time for the Religious Right to accept it and move on.

There are plenty of places where religious groups can evangelize and seek new members. Public schools should never be one of them.