Of civics and ‘sects’: debunking another school choice myth

The critic should not imagine this escapist attitude to be the specialty of the occasional occult and exclusivist faith-based school. Most of us can find it in the mirror.
The critic should not imagine this escapist attitude to be the specialty of the occasional occult and exclusivist faith-based school. Most of us can find it in the mirror.

The American Center for School Choice is committed to the empowerment of all families to choose among schools public and private, secular and religious. As in all programs of government subsidy – food stamps are an example – there will be limits on the product that can be chosen; the school preferred by the parent must meet academic standards and respect civic values. Taxpayers will not subsidize the choice of any curriculum encouraging hatred or violence.

Until the 1950’s public schools could, and did, broadly profess a religious foundation for the good society; and both history and serious contemporary research report the powerful contribution of religious private schools to civic unity. Nevertheless, skeptics of parental school choice for lower-income classes are inclined to worry: are faith-based schools perhaps separatist in their influence simply by teaching – in some transcendental sense – the superiority of believers? The critics’ principal target is an asserted practice of some religious schools to claim a favored access to eternal salvation for their own adherents.

If this allegation is an issue, it is not one for the lawyer; so long as a school teaches children to respect the civil law and their fellow citizens here on earth there could be no concern of the state. It is unimaginable under either the free exercise or establishment clauses of the 1st Amendment (plus the 14th) that government – federal or state – could undertake to censor the content of teaching simply because it includes the idea that the means of eternal salvation are accessible only to some. The State’s domain is this life only, and our governments have so far properly refrained even from asking such an inappropriate question of any school.

The content of religious teaching could become relevant to government concern – and subject to regulation – only insofar as it bore upon matters temporal. Racial distinctions by employers suggest a rough parallel; the school cannot discredit the aptitude of non-believers for strictly earthly vocations or civic participation. It may not teach that Catholics tend to make unsatisfactory mathematicians, or that Jews can’t cook. It may not warn its children to avoid personal relationships with children of non-believers. But note that such a limitation upon temporal stigma is not a restraint unique to religious schools; it is a standard curb on the teaching of the purely secular institution, whether this be Andover or P.S. 97. There is really nothing peculiar here to the faith-based school.

Thus, though the opponent of school choice is correct to worry about schools teaching the temporal inferiority of any group, he is bound in sheer logic to broaden his concern to include educators public as well as private. Just which category of school, by design or choice, most plainly radiates the earthly inferiority of particular groups would be a delicate political issue for the secular critic himself. The obvious candidate for this odious role would be the white suburban public school.

Parents get their children there by a decision to flee the company of particular racial or economic groups whose intellectual and social limitations appear to make their children unsuitable as fellow students of the worldly arts for the children of the deserter. Paradoxically, the suburban exodus leaves behind the private religious school of the city, whose alumni from all economic levels seem to satisfy anyone’s definition of the good citizen. Ask Justice Sotomayor. And, if class defamation be relevant, there is no more invidious contrast than the implicit message emanating from public schools themselves about the temporal inequality of the racial and economic groups avoided. One ponders the paradox that opponents of parental schools choice choose names such as Americans United for Separation – a telling, if unintended, truism.

But, for the moment, let us suppose the critic of religious choice has a point – that distinctions about access to eternal salvation can influence decisions in the temporal world. A hypothetical Catholic shuns the Evangelical stranger because he expects him to harbor an uncivic earthly attitude deriving from some doctrine of exclusivity in salvation. Again, how different is this in temporal terms from the motivation and behavior of the suburban émigré who decided to depart the problems of the city? Call it prejudice or what you like, but the critic should not imagine this escapist attitude to be the specialty of the occasional occult and exclusivist faith-based school. Most of us can find it in the mirror.

Perhaps the upcoming conference of religious educators planned by the ACSC’s Commission on Faith-based Schools in New York City on Nov. 19 will consider a declaration regarding the relation of the diverse religious curricula of its members to the civic unity of a democratic society. Even more challenging to the critic of choice would be a declaration of the equality of all in our access to salvation. It is my strong impression that a significant majority of America’s many creeds interpret the biblical assurances that “God is love” as the implicit assertion that salvation comes – not by luck – but by doing the best one can, with whatever gifts and luck he has been given, to find and live the truth.

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BY John E. Coons

John E. Coons is a professor of law, emeritus, University of California at Berkeley, and author with Stephen D. Sugarman of "Private Wealth and Public Education" and "Education by Choice."