Freedom of Religion and Equality in Educational Choices

Friday, April 13, 2012

A young girl walks to school every day--5 steps to her desk--where she is soon absorbed in her studies. She is an evangelical Christian homeschooler. School is out when she finally dozes off with a classic by her side and pen and notepad slipping from her grasp. She never misses a day of school for snow, sleet, wind, or rain. Though her rights to free exercise of religion are challenged by the public schools, her entrance into the portals of knowledge has been expedited by her alternative. It is impossible for public schools to provide satisfactory religious consideration for a very diverse populace, as “a general state education is a mere contrivance for molding people to be exactly like one another” (Hayek, 376). Equal consideration of all views can be achieved fairly only through eliminating public funding, localizing education and reducing public schools to equal footing with parochial and home schools.

The first amendment reads in part, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This was, at first, solely a restriction on the federal government (Permoli v. First Municipality 1845), and therefore the restriction had no influence on the schools because the federal government had no power over education (10th amendment) (Federalist No. 84). In his 6th annual address, Jefferson addressed the problem of a debt-free nation that was accumulating a surplus with the proposal that federal funding be extended to education. Education would not be taken out of the “hands of private enterprise, which manages so much better all the concerns to which it is equal,” but an amendment to the Constitution was deemed necessary “because the objects now recommended are not among those enumerated in the Constitution, and to which it permits the public moneys to be applied.” (Richardson, Vol. I, 409-410). The suggested amendment was never passed.

But while courts have overlooked Jefferson’s official remarks about the constitutionality of federal funding of education, they have placed much stock in Jefferson’s interpretation of the First Amendment as a wall of separation between church and State, found in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association (Jefferson, 332). Up to nearly fifty years after the first amendment, there is little evidence of a wall of separation in the public schools. State schools were non-sectarian, but ultimately Protestant (Parsons, 60). Washington’s admonition was heeded: “Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion…It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government…Promote, then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge” (Richardson, 220). Jefferson’s slight of the Bible in suggesting that young students whose “judgments [were] not mature enough for religious inquiry” would profit more by reading Greek, Roman, European, and American history” (Lambert, 227) was temporarily forgotten. As Tocqueville observed in the early nineteenth century: “In America, it is religion which leads the way to enlightenment; it is the observance of divine laws which leads man to liberty” (Tocqueville, 30).

The 14th amendment, ratified in 1868, extended the first amendment to the states. By then, the Zeitgeist had changed. In his 7th annual message, President Grant recommended that an amendment be submitted for ratification, making it the duty of each of the States to maintain public “schools adequate to the education of all the children…forbidding the teaching in the said schools of religious, atheistic, or pagan tenets; and prohibiting the granting of any school funds or school taxes, or any part thereof, either by legislative, municipal, or other authority, for the benefit or in aid, directly or indirectly, of any religious sect or denomination” (Richardson, Vol. VII, 334).

Of course, such an amendment was never passed, but, as Tocqueville states, “The peace, prosperity, and very existence of the Union rest constantly in the hands of seven [now nine] federal judges. Without them, the Constitution would be a dead letter” (Tocqueville, 169). In Everson v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruled that the establishment clause of the First Amendment forbids taxes to be raised in support of any school teaching religion. In Abington Township School District v. Schempp the Supreme Court ruled school-sponsored Bible reading in public schools in the United States to be unconstitutional. In Wallace v. Jaffree, the Supreme Court ruled that the State's endorsement of prayer activities at the beginning of each school day is not consistent with the “established principle that the government must pursue a course of complete neutrality toward religion.” In Kitzmiller v. Dover the teaching of intelligent design was banned from the classroom.

Do such rulings accommodate evangelical Christian students and teachers who are instructed to “Pray without ceasing,” (King James Version, 1 Thess. 1.17), “Go…into all the world [“all” does not exclude the classroom], and preach the gospel to every creature,” (Mk 16.15) and “Acknowledge Him in all your ways, and He shall direct your paths”(Prov. 3.6)? Do the rulings accommodate Christians who are taught that “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov. 1.7), and who are instructed to “train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it”? Not at all. Instead of Christianity, creationism, and the Bible, students are taught sociology and evolution, and are psychologically evaluated (Gross, 129-148). That is why my parents chose to home school me. I was taught to read from the King James Bible with prayer and Bible reading always an integral part of every school day.

It is just as impossible to satisfy everyone with the public schools as it is to return the schools to the teaching of piety. America is now a far more diverse nation than when the Constitution and First Amendment were written. Everyone has his or her own interpretation of how a child should be raised and what he or she should be taught. As F.A. Hayek adeptly observed: “Very few of the problems of education are scientific questions in the sense that they can be decided by any objective tests. They are mostly either outright questions of value, or at least the kind of questions concerning which the only ground for trusting the judgment of some people rather than that of others is that the former have shown more good sense in other respects” (Hayek, 380). Perhaps the greatest enormity is that parents who opt out of the public school system and home school or send their children to parochial schools are compelled to furnish tax dollars for the propagation of opinions they disbelieve (Paul, 133), a practice Jefferson termed sinful and tyrannical.

Satisfaction that my rights to the free exercise of religion will be sufficiently protected will not come the day the King James Bible is studied in the public schools. That day will never come; but if it does come, my atheist and Jewish neighbors will cry that their rights have been abused. I myself would fear that the government would corrupt the church. Satisfaction that my right to the free exercise of religion is sufficiently protected will not come when Protestant teachings are re-introduced into the public schools. Anyone who believes that day will come is dreaming; but if it does come, my Catholic neighbors will cry of tyranny. To compel any man or woman, of whatever religious persuasion he or she be, to furnish money for the propagation of opinions he or she disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical. I will honor Jesus Christ with my life: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” But to everyone else I say, “Choose you this day whom you will serve,” but do not compel me to pay tribute to your god, opinions, or godless education. I am a Christian. My family is Christian. My children will be raised as Christians, and dearest to our hearts, shining eternally and in everything we do, will be the Light of the World, Jesus Christ, and His immortal gift of Liberty: the individual liberty which my forefathers sought to protect with the Bill of Rights and the eternal liberty of a conscience at peace with God.
Works Cited:

Gross, Martin L. The Conspiracy of Ignorance: The Failure of the American Public Schools. New York: HarperCollins, 1999. Print.

Hamilton, Madison, and Jay. The Federalist. Ed. Wright, Benjamin F. New York: Barns & Nobles Books, 1996. 531-541. Print.

Hayek, Friedrich A. von. The Constitution of Liberty. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960. Print.

Jefferson, Thomas. The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson. Ed. Koch, Adrienne, and Peden, William. New York: The Modern Library, 1944. 332-333. Print.

Lambert, Frank. The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America. Princeton N.J.: Princeton University Press, c2003. Print.

Parsons, Wilfrid. The First Freedom. New York: D. X. McMullen Co.,1948. Print.

Paul, Ron The Revolution: A Manifesto. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2008. Print.

Richardson, James D. United States. Cong. Joint Committee on Printing. A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents 1789-1897. 53rd Cong., 2nd sess. Washington: GPO, 1896. Print.

The Holy Bible: Authorized King James Version. Nashville, Tennessee: Holman Bible Publishers, 1998. Print.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. Trans. Stephan Grant. Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett Pub., c2000. Print.


  1. Excellent post, Bethany! Maybe it's because I've become so cynical but I can't think of one thing that has benefited from the federal government's involvement. Even the constitutional mandate to protect our borders has been largely ignored in favor of using the military for aggressive action in foreign countries.

    I'm glad that all of my grandchildren are being homeschooled. Your parents are to be commended for taking the responsibility for your education so seriously and I have no doubt that their decision will serve you well in whatever you choose to do in the future.

    Best wishes!

  2. Thanks!

    "The power of accurate observation is frequently called cynicism by those who don't have it."-G.B. Shaw ;)