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Religious Education as a Human Right PDF Print E-mail

Don Feder
The Boston Herald

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Washington DC, April 17-19, 1998

In his recent trip to Cuba, the pope voiced his strong support for parental choice in education. In the struggle for religious freedom in America, school choice is the most significant as well as the most neglected aspect of the debate.

In the city of Santa Clara, to thunderous applause, John Paul II declared that while the state has a legitimate role to play in education, “this does not give public authority the right to take the place of parents.’’

Families “should be able to choose for their children the pedagogical method, the ethical and civic content and the religious inspiration which will enable them to receive an integral education,’’ the pontiff told those assembled for an outdoor mass.

Catholic education, which once thrived in Cuba, is today nonexistent. Fidel Castro (who saw the church as a threat to his authority) closed the nation’s parochial schools in the early 1960s.

Unlike Cuba, the United States is a mostly free and basically democratic society. And yet, the liberal elite that controls America’s public schools is as adverse to educational choice, as the party elite that rules Cuba is. When we think of the way secular, liberals stifle religious expression in education, we usually focus on school prayer, Christmas carols, and the like. But educational choice (vouchers, tuition tax credits) is itself a religious freedom issue. In America, religious liberty is based on the self-evident principle that parents have a right to impart spiritual values to their children. No one would deny that a mother and father have a right to take their children to church or synagogue services, to celebrate religious holidays, to perform rituals, and to read the Bible together in their homes. But the amount of time the average family devotes to church attendance, religious instruction, and home devotion is minimal compared to the 7 hours a day, 35 hours a week that the public schools have their children as a captive audience.

It has been a very long time (measured in decades) since public-school pedagogy concerned itself primarily with instruction in academic subjects. Now, much of the school day is taken up by indoctrination in the creed of modern liberalism (otherwise known as secular humanism), including—but by no means limited to—sex education, values clarification, multiculturalism, race education, ecology studies, gay sensitivity sessions, and other forms of political correctness. Students are programmed in a dogma (a worldview) directly at odds with our Judeo-Christian heritage. One reason prayer was taken out of public education in the early 1960s was to avoid a troubling contradiction—children praying to the one God at the beginning of the school day and taught to worship other gods for the rest of the day. The academic failings of public education are too well documented to require elaboration here. But their moral failings—their propagation of pernicious doctrines that are contrary to both reason and virtue—are even more appalling.

In a recent article, New York Post columnist Ray Kerrison wrote of a 78-minute documentary film, produced by two lesbians and titled “It’s Elementary Talking About Gay Issues in School.” This Orwellian video is being shown in public schools nationwide. Kerrison says: “First- and second-graders—children so young they clearly don’t even know what sexuality is—are given the full treatment about homosexuals, lesbians and bisexuals. Prodded by a homosexual teacher, children eagerly approve of homosexual marriage. Those who do not embrace the homosexual agenda are depicted as cruel homophobes, bigots and haters.”

Kerrison quotes Dr. Howard Hurwitz, a retired public school principal that viewed the film. Hurwitz comments: “Never in my 50 years of experience in the schools have I seen so scandalous a plan for indoctrinating children. It is an assault on common decency and traditional family values.’’

School choice (really, parental choice)—in the form of vouchers, tax-funded scholarships, or tuition tax credits—would give families the means to resist this onslaught, an option other than surrendering their children for socialization. That’s why liberals resist the concept so fiercely.

On March 4, the House Judiciary Committee approved the Religious Liberty Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The amendment essentially provides equal treatment for religious and secular groups and ideas in the public sector. Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the committee’s ranking Democrat, denounced the amendment as “extremely dangerous.’’ Conyers’ reasoning is revealing. “The real import of the measure,” the congressman declared, “is to force the government to fund religious organizations in the same way it funds secular activities with an ultimate goal of supporting school vouchers and de-funding the public education system.’’

Last September, Education Secretary Richard Riley, in expressing his contempt for vouchers, made several observations that were inane and intellectually dishonest even by the standards of the Clinton cabinet. “Vouchers would begin the unraveling of this uniquely American fabric—the common public school that has been open to one and all and gives everyone a fair chance to succeed,’’ the secretary charged. “Moreover,” Riley remarked, “religious schools now make up 79 percent of private schools.” As if that alone were enough to damn them, “Thus,” the secretary cautioned, “vouchers would lead to public support of religious education on a massive scale.”

Liberals know exactly where the greatest challenge to their authority lies. Say “religious freedom or equality’’ and, like Pavlov’s dogs, they immediately bark “vouchers.’’ Say “tuition tax credits” or “educational scholarships’’ and they frantically reply “parochial schools.’’ Of course, they see nothing wrong with forcing religious families to support the public education system through their property taxes or other levies. Liberals aren’t at all adverse to making these families pay twice, if they choose to send their children to a religious school. What with the high cost of housing, food, clothing, and other necessities, many families are unable to bear this double burden. That is exactly the way liberals want it. Like Castro, they don’t want competition for the minds and hearts of the young. Hence their single-minded dedication to creating obstacles to private—particularly religious—education.

If parents have the option of a parochial, Christian, or Jewish day school, many will choose to give their children an education that reflects their spiritual values, instead of surrendering them to the state educational system or indoctrination in the liberal fads of the day.

Lee Berg of the National Education Association’s Center for the Revitalization of Urban Education, is excruciatingly candid: “When education is not public we no longer have the ability to control what is taught.’’ And that ladies and gentlemen is what it’s all about—control, domination, compulsion, coercion. Liberals believe that they, and they alone, should be able to shape the future, that only their views should be presented in America’s classrooms.

The NEA has a position on every political issue, from abortion to racial quotas. On each, it marches in lockstep with liberal dogma. It supports candidates for public office committed to these causes. And, its members control America’s public schools. If you think the NEA’s political agenda doesn’t seep into daily instruction there, think again.

By the way, the educators who write the textbooks, design curriculum, and choose course materials, have the same political passion.

Given judicial misinterpretation of the First Amendment, there are many religious liberty issues to be resolved. Public school children should be able to say a nondenominational prayer or engage in a moment of silent meditation at the beginning of the school day. Municipalities should be able to display crèches and menorahs during the holiday season. Judges should be able to display the Ten Commandments (the foundation of our system of justice) in their courtrooms. Charitable organizations should not be denied public funding due solely to religious affiliation. All of this is necessary, in keeping with our national heritage and basic fairness. But giving parents the ability to choose a religious education for their children is more important to the future of religious liberty in America than all of the foregoing.

Educational choice is a religious right, and denial of the same is the most serious violation of freedom of conscience in America today.