Education Opinion

Religious Fundamentalism and Public Schools

By Walt Gardner — March 21, 2012 2 min read
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Although the presidential election is still seven months away, voters are already hearing arguments in support of allowing religion in public schools. “The labor behind the initiatives may be local, but the ideas, the money, and the legal firepower that make them possible are national,” as Katherine Stewart makes clear in The Good News Club (Public Affairs, 2012).

New York City is the latest venue for the movement. Encouraged by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Good News Club v. Milford Central School in 2001 that a school district discriminated against an after-school bible study group by barring it from using space in a school building, an evangelical group known as the Bronx Household of Faith wanted to hold its Sunday services at Public School 15. But in June, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit said that a worship service is different from a bible study group because the former consecrates the place in which it is performed (“Separate Public Schools From Churches,” The New York Times, Feb. 1). The high court refused to hear an appeal, resulting in a deadline for the 60 or so congregations to relocate their worship services.

What makes the campaign to inject religion into schools so disturbing is that it is insidious, posing a direct threat to the continuation of public education in this country. This caveat so far applies mainly to Christian fundamentalism, but it is not limited to it. As Stewart writes: “Whether you’re talking about Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, all forms of fundamentalism are on the rise.” Reformers argue that the “ethos of common schooling” is undermined far more by the failing of so many public schools, but this is a separate issue (“School Reform’s Establishment Turn,” The Wall Street Journal, Mar. 19).

Contrary to popular belief, reference to a wall of separation between church and state does not appear in the U.S. Constitution. The term was coined by Thomas Jefferson when he was president in a letter to the Danbury Baptists to assure them that the federal government would not be biased against them in any way. Only in 1879 did the term make its way into the judicial lexicon in Reynolds v. United States. Since then, it has been cited by the U.S. Supreme Court 23 times.

Despite temporary setbacks, as in New York City, the campaign to infiltrate public schools continues unabated. If evangelists ultimately achieve their objective, more and more parents will pull their children out of public schools and enroll them elsewhere. This will create further divisions among Americans. The U.S. is supposed to be a land where church and state are separate. Government is prohibited from supporting faith. That’s why any inroad made by any religion into public schools is cause for deep concern. I believe that parents have the right to send their children to any school that best meets their needs and interests - religious or otherwise. But they should not have to base their decision on a violation of the U.S. Constitution.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.