Since public schools are tax-funded, they're barred by the First Amendment from promoting "an establishment of religion." But as institutions of learning, they would be remiss in not educating children about a topic as significant to history and current events as religion is.
The U.S. Supreme Court half a century ago struck a reasonable if delicate balance: Religion could be taught in schools in the way history, math and other subjects are taught — as the secular relaying of knowledge — but for schools to advocate religion or lead students in prayer was constitutionally prohibited.
That balance is now being thrown off by a conservative evangelical campaign to get state legislatures to undermine this important principle of church-state separation. They're pushing measures for public-school Bible-study classes and other activities that properly belong in Sunday school. This is the very definition of government establishment of religion, and it should be challenged at every turn.
A national effort called Project Blitz has gotten almost a dozen state legislatures to introduce or pass laws establishing Bible classes in public schools. As The Washington Post reports, these aren't the type of "History of Religion" classes that examine the ways various belief systems shape our world. These are teachers-as-pastors, standing in front of public-school students, presenting value-specific Bible lessons.
And it's only the Bible. There's no rush of legislation to include the Quran or any other denominational text in these classes. Any references to Judaism presumably are limited to its intersections with Christianity, since promoting Christianity is the clear goal of these measures.
Other states have approved or are considering laws like the one Missouri legislators debated last month, to require the words "In God We Trust" to be displayed in public schools. While less religion-specific than the Bible-study classes, it's a clear message to non-religious students that their tax-funded schools devalue their personal beliefs or desire to have their classroom instruction be kept free of religious indoctrination.
The Supreme Court's landmark 1963 ruling in School District of Abington Township v. Schempp said teaching religion in public schools is unconstitutional unless it's "presented objectively as part of a secular program of education." Promoters of these new laws are clearly violating that standard in what appears to be an attempt to get sued, so they can relitigate. The American Civil Liberties Union and others may soon grant their wish.
If America is headed for another showdown over a question that was properly decided decades ago, the schoolhouse proselytizers shouldn't be seen as guardians of religion; numerous religious groups, including Christian ones, rightly support keeping that church-state wall in place, as much to protect religion as secular society.
Nor should the promoters of this retrograde movement be seen in any way as patriots. Their goal isn't just unconstitutional; it's deeply unAmerican.
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