Commentary

Government Should Help Families Pursue Religious Education

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The government should have a role in the promotion of religious values in the nation's schools, but not in the way that is normally discussed--by passing laws that allow prayer or a "moment of silent meditation" in the public schools. Instead, the government should concentrate on policies that provide financial aid for schools with legitimate religious-education missions.

Normally, either approach is judged, and usually condemned, on the same constitutional principles that prohibit government support of religion. But school prayer and public support of religious schools are entirely different issues, and should be treated as such.

During the past year, as seems to happen every year, the issue of school prayer or meditation again raised (perhaps I should say "bowed") its annoying head. It has not fared well. The latest setback for advocates of meditation during class time came in New Jersey, where a federal district judge in October declared the state's "moment-of-silence" law an unconstitutional attempt to introduce prayer into public schools.

Because the act of praying is precious to so many people, however, laws asking for in-school prayer or meditation keep appearing despite such defeats. Public-opinion polls consistently show support for the idea. (Recently the Business Poll--a quarterly survey of 108 top executives--showed that 82 percent believe prayer should be allowed in the classroom.) It is therefore not surprising that nearly 20 states have had some kind of "prayer" or "moment-of-silence" law enacted, and usually struck down, in the last 10 years.

All this legal wrangling has nothing to do with the true essence of prayer: the voluntary commitment of individuals of conscience to express a love for God, best done in a congregation of fellow believers. Real prayer, and the acceptance of guilt and expiation that accompanies it, makes the "one minute of silent devotion" being proposed in some states seem pale and hollow by comparison.

Prayer should be a personal or congregational act, not a state-mandated formality to be performed without religious context. State-required school prayer would demean, cheapen, and desecrate religion, and proponents of religion should forget about the issue of school prayer. It should be their mission to insulate religion from the potential dangers of government control, not to try to interject the state's watered-down version of religion into public institutions.

Instead of trying to require religious observance as a way of promoting religious values, a much better role for government would be to assist families of similar religious beliefs to attend private schools where prayer or meaningful religious practices are central.

This is done in several countries, including Denmark, and the system used there is instructive. As early as 1830, Denmark provided money to private schools because the government feared that the official state church (Lutheran) might squelch the religious freedom of other, minority religions. Today, in addition to funding the public schools, which are strongly Lutheran in tone, the government provides direct support to non-Lutheran families who have elected to educate their children in their own religious traditions.

These schools receive funds for the support of "special interest groups"--families of various "religious persuasions or nationalities." With the help of the state, families may select and pay for private-school alternatives with varying ideological, political, and religious orientations. All that is required of these private schools is that they meet the curricular standards of the public schools and enroll a minimum of 28 children.

Furthermore, if families are displeased with the available educational choices, public and private, a group of 24 supporters can petition the government for low-interest loans to start a new private school. The government is not only willing to provide up to 85 percent of the direct operating costs of private elementary and secondary schools, but it will also "seed" new schools with special loans for locating a school building and hiring a new staff.

The Danish example is useful for several reasons. First, state support there has not meant the death of traditional public schools--an argument often used against such plans in this country. Despite the level of aid to private schools, Denmark has only 6 percent private-school enrollment.

Second, Denmark, like the United States, has a deep concern for its minorities. While the United States protects its religious and cultural minorities through court action and a reliance on policies of equal protection and equal access, Denmark funds a variety of school choices, permitting families to maintain control over the education of their children. In Denmark, such fundamental freedom of religious education was created in the face of a theocratic state church--a case of government trying to bend over backwards to protect the rights of religious minorities.

The United States should likewise consider funding schools which encourage intellectual, social, and religious diversity. If an American family prefers a pluralist school experience, one which does not stress a particular religious or cultural bias, then they would probably seek a public school, as most Americans have. Such a choice would be made knowing that alternatives exist and are accessible, however, not because the public schools are the only affordable option for many. If, on the other hand, parents and children want nonpublic alternatives, some resources should be available to help them.

Given the long history of struggle over attempts to support private schools in the United States, no clear, simple plan of action is apparent. Though private schools have a "right" to exist in this country, and do receive some indirect government assistance through tax exemptions, free books, materials, services, and transportation, the United States has by and large avoided helping private schools to the extent that Denmark, Australia, and most European countries have.

What kind of system might be possible here? I would favor a rebate and subsidy system, one in which taxpayers with children in nonpublic schools would receive a tax refund based on their income and the direct expenses they incur sending their child to private school. But if the family is poor, paying very little in taxes, then an income-tax credit would be meaningless, even though the pricetag for private schooling is high. Such cases call for an education subsidy, or "voucher," to the poor.

Following the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Mueller v. Allen to uphold Minnesota's system that allows tax breaks for educational expenses at public and private schools, the national climate for such a system is more favorable.

Such a system is preferable to mandated prayer, which appears to engage the government in dictating the time and place of religious observance. Indirect financial aid to families helps families to pursue the dictates of the heart and mind. If the state aid goes to the family, not the school, then the government rightly puts the family between itself and the religious education of children. Such a buffer protects religion from the control of the state, allows the state to involve itself in the religious life of its citizens without violating the Constitution, and helps families preserve their option for religious education.

Certainly, actions by government to help families pursue religious education are quite different from actions by government to require religious activities in the public schools. Mandating school prayer is not the proper course for government; but giving families the resources to seek private religious education for their children should not be abhorrent to a nation that prizes religious liberty.

Vol. 03, Issue 13, Page 28

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