Archives for category: Religion

Trump has tried to divert attention from his impeachment and trial by revving up fears that “religious freedom” is under attack in the nation, and he alone will protect it.

This is complete nonsense, but helps to explain why he appointed two new Supreme Court justices who have a history of overturning any efforts to separate church and state or to protect the secular nature of state action. Trump judges can be counted on to allow plaintiffs to discriminate against anyone who offends their religious beliefs. A pending decision by the High Court in the Espinoza case from Montana threatens to abolish state laws that prohibit public funding of religious schools.

Trump held a meeting in the Oval Office with representatives of religious groups who want official endorsement of prayer in the schools, and Trump assured them, as Valerie Strauss wrote in The Answer Sheet, that there is “a growing totalitarian impulse on the far left that seeks to punish, restrict and even prohibit religious expression” and said the steps his administration was taking “to protect the First Amendment right to pray in public schools” were “historic.” Actually, students and anybody else in a public school already have the right to pray in public schools, and his administration’s new guidance changes little from that of earlier administrations.

Valerie Strauss included the transcript of his inflammatory and false statements in her post.

Peter Greene wrote that Trump had solved a problem that literally did not exist, since students already have the right to pray in school if they wish. 

Greene finds it amusing that Trump has inserted himself into two issues–religion and education–in which he literally has no interest at all.

The editorial board of the Los Angeles Times notes that Trump has appealed to evangelicals’ fear that the secular state is persecuting them. It is a divisive and false message.

In an editorial published on January 17, the Times wrote:

Not for the first time, President Trump is trying to score political points with his evangelical supporters by unveiling a “religious freedom” initiative that suggests, cynically, that Christianity in America is under sustained attack and that the federal government must come to its rescue. Needless to say, that is not the case.

The initiative unveiled on Thursday is best seen not as a considered response to a real problem but as a political statement in which the president is aligning himself with Christian conservatives whose support could be essential to his 2020 reelection. Its centerpiece is a “guidance” letter from the Department of Education reminding public schools that they must certify that they allow students to engage in “constitutionally protected prayer.” That’s a reference to voluntary prayer, not the official prayers that were outlawed by the Supreme Court in the 1960s.

In other words, the heart of this initiative is a reaffirmation of existing law. Trump isn’t the first president to put schools on notice that they must respect religious expression by their students. Substantially similar guidance was issued by the Clinton administration in 1995. But Trump is a past master of repackaging existing law involving religious freedom to make it appear that he is delivering to his religious supporters.

Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, took issue with Trump’s efforts to politicize religious issues.

When President Donald Trump leaked, at a rally for evangelical supporters in Florida on Jan. 3, that his administration would issue guidance about prayer in public schools, he started a mini-firestorm, and not just among the fired-up crowd.

When the guidance was released on Thursday (Jan. 16), however, it turned out to be hardly worth the excitement. According to long-settled legal and constitutional protections for religious expression in the public schools, public school students are free to pray, wear religious clothing and accessories and talk about their beliefs. Religious groups can meet on school grounds, and teachers can teach about religion as an academic subject. Religious liberty, in short, is already a treasured value in our nation’s public schools.

So why are the president and White House staffers making inflammatory and misleading statements, claiming our constitutional rights are under attack?

It could be that the administration simply wanted to remind public schools of their constitutional duties. But some comments officials made before and in their announcement of the guidance vastly overstated the supposed problem and echoed the claims of Christian nationalism, a dangerous movement that harms both Christianity and the United States by implying that to be a good American, one must be Christian…

For decades, public schools across the nation have modeled how religiously diverse populations can build relationships of trust and care, respecting the unique role that religion plays in people’s lives. Like our neighbors of all faiths, we are empowered by the First Amendment to live our beliefs in the public square, which includes the public school….

The law cannot anticipate the nuances of every situation that might arise at a given school, and sometimes a misunderstanding or misrepresented incident spurs a call to “bring back prayer” to our schools. In most cases, these misunderstandings simply create an opportunity to reaffirm commonsense guidance and constitutional principles that support voluntary, student-led religious exercise.

But using any incident to institute state-sanctioned prayer, written and delivered by school officials, should be deeply concerning for all Christians. For a Baptist, as I am, voluntary prayer is an important part of my religious practice, and it has been since I was a student in Texas public schools. Why should government schools have a say in how and whether our children pray?

Importantly, ensuring faith freedom for all isn’t only an issue of concern for Christians. If Christian nationalists were able to realize their goal and prioritize Christianity over other traditions in public schools, it is religious minorities who will suffer the most. In our religiously diverse society, why should our schools favor Baptists over Buddhists, Anglicans over atheists, or Methodists over Muslims.

Instead of demanding that a distorted vision of state-sanctioned Christianity be upheld by public schools, Trump should celebrate what public schools already are: a place where religious liberty ensures that Americans can work and learn together across lines of religious difference.

To guarantee religious freedom for students of all faiths and nonreligious students, we must embrace our nation’s constitutional vision that has served us well and push back against the dangerous influence of Christian nationalism.

 

 

California claims to have tightened up its charter school law, but huge loopholes remain. For example, state money goes to charters that offer religious education to home school students, as well as to private businesses.

Patrick O’Donnell, chair of the Assembly Education Committee, thinks that oversight is needed.

Private businesses and religious organizations have been getting public school dollars through charter schools that allow home-schooling parents to use state funds to pay for certain services for their children — a practice some lawmakers want to rein in.

Parents in certain home school charters get as much as $2,600 a year, money that has gone to Disneyland, religious educators, private businesses and others who provide educational, enrichment and recreational services for children.

“It was never the intent of the state legislature to pass dollars through online charter schools to private vendors or religious organizations,” said Assembly Education Committee Chair Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach, in an interview. “This highlights a bigger issue that we’ve been grappling with in Sacramento for many years … that the charter school law, when it was originally written, was wide open.”

Another state legislator, Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, says she plans to bring forward a bill in the new year that would require state oversight and rules for charter school vendors.

She expects the bill will have guidelines about what kinds of vendors would be allowed to receive public school funds. She said her bill was partly inspired by The San Diego Union-Tribune’s reporting on home school charters.

It’s important “to make sure we are allowing (charter schools) to have the freedom that they were given, without it being abused and without it turning into a system where we’re privatizing education and taking advantage of loopholes,” Garcia said during an interview.

“We keep going to the fact that there hasn’t been enough oversight as to how charter schools are using the dollars,” she said. “I think we’re seeing through this reporting that there’s a lot of blurred lines, and we need a lot more transparency and a lot more accountability.”

Legislators can reasonably anticipate that the powerful, well-funded California Charter Schools Association will fight relentlessly against any regulation, oversight, transparency, or accountability.

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case called Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue that will determine whether the United States–or any state–may still respect a separation of church and state.

In the wake of Donald Trump’s choice of two far-right Justices to the Supreme Court, this case might well be decided in a way that removes all prohibitions on the use of public funds for religious schools.

The facts of the case are these: Like many states, Montana’s state constitution forbids the funding of religious schools. The Montana legislature passed a tax credit program that funds vouchers for religious schools. The Montana Supreme Court ruled that the law violated the state constitution. Now, the case is before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Many states have such prohibitions (and in some of them, like Indiana and Florida, the state courts decided to ignore the explicit language of the state constitution and allow vouchers for religious schools on the claim that the money goes to the family not the religious school that actually gets the public money). The typical attack on state bans on funding religious schools is that such prohibitions are “Blaine amendments,” adopted in the late 19th century at the height of anti-Catholic bigotry; because they were passed in a spirit of bigotry, the argument goes, they should be struck down.

In Montana, the prohibition on funding religious schools is not a Blaine amendment. It was the product of a Montana state constitutional convention in 1972.

Advocates of vouchers will nonetheless make the same argument, ignoring the facts.

Will the Supreme Court care? Or will it placate demands for religious “freedom” by preventing states from keeping public money only in public schools?

If the Espinoza case is decided against Montana, we can anticipate public funding of evangelical Christian schools, Catholic schools, Yeshivas, and Madrassas, as well as the schools of every imaginable sect and religious group.

Somehow this does not seem to be what the Founders had in mind when they created this nation more than 200 years ago. They were not anti-religion, but they did not want religious tests for office or any religious establishment of religion with public funds.

Here is an amicus brief in the Espinoza case written by “Public Funds Public Schools,” a collaboration of legal organizations that support civil rights and civil liberties, the Education Law Center, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the SPLC Action Fund, and Munger, Tolles, and Olson LLP.

The Education Law Center created this graphic and explanatory information about the battle to keep public funds in public schools. The graphic shows the state of the voucher movement and identifies which states have advanced or repelled efforts to privatize public funding to religious and private schools via vouchers. It is heartening to see the number of states that rejected voucher legislation, especially when such legislation was defeated by a coalition of rural Republican legislators and urban Democratic legislators, as was the case in Texas and Arkansas. Thanks to all those who are joining forces to keep public funds in public schools.

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PRIVATE SCHOOL VOUCHERS: ANALYSIS OF 2019 STATE LEGISLATIVE SESSIONS
For a larger version and a text description of this map with a list of the states in each category, click ​here​.
In anticipation of states’ 2020 legislative sessions, this is the first in a series about the fate of private school voucher proposals during 2019 sessions.
Introduction
Despite the continued promotion of school privatization by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, as well as support from a number of governors, legislatures, and well-funded advocacy organizations across the country, only two states enacted new private school voucher programs during their 2019 legislative sessions. Although some states expanded existing voucher programs, most passed no voucher legislation at all, and the majority of those that did made small-scale changes.
2019 Legislative Session Highlights:
  • Bipartisan majorities in Georgia, Kentucky, and West Virginia rejected voucher proposals supported by those states’ newly elected governors.
  • Although 22 states have full Republican control, only Florida and Tennessee were able to pass legislation creating new voucher programs in votes largely along party lines.
  • In Nevada, just a few years after the nation’s most expansive Education Savings Account (ESA) voucher law was passed, a new governor signed a bill repealing the program, which had never been implemented.
2019 Legislative Session Lowlights:
  • Tennessee passed a new private school voucher program, though it is limited to two counties.
  • Florida added yet another voucher program to the state’s existing voucher system.
  • Other states increased funding for their previously enacted programs, including Indiana and Iowa.
State Actions in Brief:
Arkansas
For the second consecutive legislative session, rural Republican lawmakers teamed with Democrats in a bipartisan effort to defeat legislation that would have created new school voucher programs. Proposals for a tax credit voucher and a traditional voucher were defeated. Although eligibility for the state’s existing ESA vouchers was modestly expanded, a bill passed requiring a biennial study that will provide lawmakers with important information to analyze how public funds are being spent in that program.
Arizona
Months after voters overwhelmingly rejected the 2017 expansion of the state’s ESA voucher program, legislators introduced a number of bills to again expand the program. Two of these bills passed out of relevant committees but were not taken up by the House or Senate. The remaining expansion bills did not advance, and a bill that slows the growth of tax credit vouchers passed into law.
Diverting public money to private education starves public schools of vital resources and does not lead to improved academic outcomes. For information about various types of private school voucher programs, visit the Public Funds Public Schools website. The PFPS website also highlights a wide range of research showing that private school voucher programs are an ineffective and harmful use of public funds.
Florida
Governor Ron DeSantis (R) signed Florida’s latest private school voucher plan, the “Family Empowerment Scholarship Program,” into law. This program will divert an estimated $130 million to private schools over the authorized period and will make vouchers available to middle class families earning up to $80,000 a year.
Georgia
Despite a new Republican governor who supports private school vouchers, voucher legislation failed in the State Senate. Six of the 13 Republican senators who represent rural areas of the state voted against the bill.
Indiana
Governor Eric Holcomb (R) signed legislation to increase funding for Indiana’s existing tax credit voucher program by almost 15% over the next two years. The legislation also increases the voucher amount for eligible families.
Iowa
Governor Kim Reynolds (R) signed legislation to increase the cap for Iowa’s existing tax credit voucher program by $2 million over the next two years. A bill to establish an ESA voucher was not considered by the full legislature.
Kentucky
Mobilization at the state capitol by educators standing up for public schools and several days of school sickout closures led to the defeat of legislation to create a tax credit voucher program. The Republican majority did not bring the bill up for a vote.
Louisiana
In Louisiana, a bill creating a “reading voucher” for public school students to use for private tutoring and other private uses passed the House but did not make it out of the Senate Finance Committee.
Mississippi
A bill to expand the state’s limited ESA voucher program was not voted on in the Republican-led House Education Committee. However, as the session was ending, the Lieutenant Governor included $2 million in new ESA funding in a bill to fund state construction projects.
Missouri
Bills to create a tax-credit-funded ESA voucher program were not acted upon before the legislative deadline.
Nevada
Governor Steve Sisolak (D) signed a bill formally repealing the state’s ESA voucher program first passed in 2015, and subsequently struck down by the Nevada Supreme Court. Additionally, a number of bills to create ESA vouchers for students deemed “victims of bullying” failed to advance in the legislature.
North Dakota
A bill that would have authorized a “school choice” study, including of ESA vouchers, passed in the House of Representatives but failed in the Senate.
Pennsylvania
Governor Tom Wolf (D) vetoed a major expansion of the state’s tax credit voucher program passed by the Republican-led legislature. The bill would have nearly doubled the amount that could be diverted to the program, included automatic annual expansions, and significantly raised the income limit for participating families.
South Carolina
Two bills were introduced in the legislature to establish an ESA voucher for students with disabilities. Both were referred to their chamber’s education committee, with no action taken by the legislature.
Tennessee
Governor Bill Lee (R) signed a law to establish an ESA voucher program. Concessions were made to rural Republican legislators in order to pass the bill, including limiting the program to the state’s two largest school districts and capping it at 15,000 students per year.
Texas
State leadership, including Republican legislators and the governor, did not include vouchers among their education priorities in 2019. In response to electoral losses in the suburbs and a lack of support for vouchers, legislative leaders emphasized improving the state’s public school financing system instead.
West Virginia
After a nine-day teachers’ strike in 2018, educators went on strike again, closing all but one of the state’s 55 county public school districts, to protest bills to allow charter schools and to create an ESA voucher program. The voucher bill did not pass during the regular session. Vouchers were again considered, but the program did not pass, during a special session on education legislation.
Resources
Acknowledgements
Many thanks to Jason Unger for compiling the research and drafting this series on 2019 legislative sessions.
Press Contact:
Sharon Krengel
Policy and Outreach Director
Education Law Center
973-624-1815, ext. 24

New York City investigators began examining the city’s yeshivas in 2015 in response to complaints from graduates of the Yeshivas that they had not received an education that met state requirements. It is 2019 and there is still no report. Leonie Haimson writes about the growing suspicion that the de Blasio administration sat on the investigation in order to win key votes from Orthodox Jews and their allies in the Legislature on the renewal of mayoral control.

The report was finally released on December 19, four years after it was initiated.

Only two of the 28 ultra-orthodox yeshivas visited by the city Education Department over the past three years are providing an education that meets state legal standards, according to a long-awaited report released Thursday.

Schools examined by the city ran the gamut from teaching a full range of subjects in English, to offering no math or English courses, and providing students with no access to textbooks written in English. Of almost 140 elementary and middle school classes officials attended, about a third were taught exclusively in Yiddish, with the remainder taught in a mix of English and Yiddish.

The DOE classified 8 of the 28 schools as well on their way to meeting the state standard of providing an education “substantially equivalent” to the one offered in public schools. Another 12 met parts of the criteria, and five schools had almost no overlap with the requirements.

Naftuli Moster, the executive director of YAFFED, a group dedicated to reforming ultra-orthodox yeshiva education, said the report “reaffirms what we already know: That tens of thousands of children in New York City, including those in nearly 40 Yeshivas the city investigated and those which the city failed to monitor for decades, are being denied a basic education as required by law.”

Here is another report, this one in The Forward, a Jewish-oriented newspaper. 

The mixture of religion and the state is always volatile.

The Yeshiva graduates who demanded the investigation said they had not learned secular subjects, they had learned most of the curriculum in Hebrew, and they were ill-equipped to function in contemporary society.

Why did it take four years to investigate 28 schools?

The NYC publication Gothamist reported:

Probe Finds De Blasio Administration Stalled Report on Academic Standards at Yeshivas

The de Blasio administration engaged in political maneuvering to stall the release of a report on education standards in Hasidic yeshivas, according to city investigators. A joint report from the Department of Investigations and the Special Commissioner of Investigation for city schools released Wednesday found representatives of the mayor and state legislators took part in “political horse trading” in 2017 as part of a ploy to delay an interim Department of Education report on whether the yeshivas were proving education on par with the city’s public schools.

The effort was part of a plan to secure support for extending mayoral control for city schools, investigators found, which was approved by the legislature in 2017. But investigators determined the agreement “had no substantial effect on the inquiry’s conclusion or the progress of the inquiry,” which was delayed by several other factors, according to a statement from the Department of Investigations, including a generally accommodative stance by the DOE to the yeshivas it was attempting to investigate.

Investigators did not determine whether the mayor personally approved the delay of the DOE report, but the statement noted, “the totality of evidence did indicate the Mayor was aware that the offer to delay had been made.” The report concluded that no laws were violated. The final report from the DOE has still not been released, though de Blasio administration officials indicated it would be coming soon, years after it was promised.

In a statement following the revelations Wednesday, Naftuli Moster, executive director of YAFFED, an educational advocacy group operating in Orthodox Jewish communities, said, “What a disgrace. The DOI/SCI investigation shows the City is willing to trade away the education of tens of thousands of students for power and political influence. These findings also raise concerns as to whether the City will provide an accurate assessment of what is happening inside Yeshiva schools when it finally releases its report.”
*****

Haimson writes:

It is hard to know which is more toxic – the system of autocratic mayoral control which I and others critiqued at Assembly hearings this week;  or the damaging political deals the Mayor has made to keep it – which include not just a delay in issuing a report on the Yeshivas in 2017,  but also that same year, his agreement to an increase in the number of NYC charter schools. 

Before that, as part of the deal to extend mayoral control in 2014 , de Blasio agreed to either co-locate charter schools in public school buildings or help pay for rent in private buildings – a legal obligation which no other district in the state or the nation has been saddled with, and that the DOE is now spending more than $100M per year on.

A question which the DOE/SCI statement does not answer is why the DOE inquiry into the Yeshivas was still in its early stages in June 2017 – given that the initial complaint was made in the July 2015.  See Yaffed’s timeline here.

Another question is what is now holding up the release of the DOE’s final report, given that that the DOE visits to Yeshivas concluded last spring and that  “Although the DOE has now visited all 28 yeshivas [originally named in the complaint that are still open], more than four years after the initial complaints, the DOE’s Inquirycontinues.”

If the visits ended last spring, why does the DOE Inquiry continue and why has no report has yet been issued?  No explanation is provided.

All this makes one suspect that the political influence of the ultra-Orthodox community with the Mayor and City Hall continues to hamper DOE’s actions and reporting on this issue.

If the United States Supreme Court rules against state prohibitions on vouchers for religious schools in the coming term, the public will fund many such schools, including those governed by all religious groups that will step forward to claim their share of the public purse.

If the Supreme Court decides that the state must pay for religious schools, will the state also have the power to regulate those schools and require that they teach subjects in English and meet the same academic standards as other publicly-funded schools?

Christianity Today was founded by the late Reverend Billy Graham, the leading figure in evangelical Christianity. Its publication is Christianity Today. CT published an editorial today saying that it was time for Trump to leave. it received national attention.

The editorial was signed by its editor-in-chief Mark Galli:

Let’s grant this to the president: The Democrats have had it out for him from day one, and therefore nearly everything they do is under a cloud of partisan suspicion. This has led many to suspect not only motives but facts in these recent impeachment hearings. And, no, Mr. Trump did not have a serious opportunity to offer his side of the story in the House hearings on impeachment.

But the facts in this instance are unambiguous: The president of the United States attempted to use his political power to coerce a foreign leader to harass and discredit one of the president’s political opponents. That is not only a violation of the Constitution; more importantly, it is profoundly immoral.

The reason many are not shocked about this is that this president has dumbed down the idea of morality in his administration. He has hired and fired a number of people who are now convicted criminals. He himself has admitted to immoral actions in business and his relationship with women, about which he remains proud. His Twitter feed alone—with its habitual string of mischaracterizations, lies, and slanders—is a near perfect example of a human being who is morally lost and confused.

Trump’s evangelical supporters have pointed to his Supreme Court nominees, his defense of religious liberty, and his stewardship of the economy, among other things, as achievements that justify their support of the president. We believe the impeachment hearings have made it absolutely clear, in a way the Mueller investigation did not, that President Trump has abused his authority for personal gain and betrayed his constitutional oath. The impeachment hearings have illuminated the president’s moral deficiencies for all to see. This damages the institution of the presidency, damages the reputation of our country, and damages both the spirit and the future of our people. None of the president’s positives can balance the moral and political danger we face under a leader of such grossly immoral character….

To the many evangelicals who continue to support Mr. Trump in spite of his blackened moral record, we might say this: Remember who you are and whom you serve. Consider how your justification of Mr. Trump influences your witness to your Lord and Savior. Consider what an unbelieving world will say if you continue to brush off Mr. Trump’s immoral words and behavior in the cause of political expediency. If we don’t reverse course now, will anyone take anything we say about justice and righteousness with any seriousness for decades to come? Can we say with a straight face that abortion is a great evil that cannot be tolerated and, with the same straight face, say that the bent and broken character of our nation’s leader doesn’t really matter in the end?

Happy Thanksgiving!

Today is a day when we pause and give thanks to whatever deity we worship (or not) for the blessings we enjoy: our freedom, our family, our friends, and our good fortune to live in a democracy where we are all responsible for making it better for our brothers and sisters.

I want to share with you a profound speech delivered by our good friend Rev. Dr. Charles Foster Johnson about religious liberty and the public schools and the future of our democracy.

Charlie Johnson is the founder and leader of Pastors for Texas Children. PTC has led the fight against vouchers in Texas and has helped like-minded religious leaders in other states form their own organizations to support religious liberty and public schools. I never expected, at this late chapter in my life, to discover that I have a dear friend who is a Baptist minister in my home state of Texas. I admire his courage, his intellect, and his passion for the common good. Needless to say, he is on the honor roll of this blog, and I name him as a hero of the Resistance in my forthcoming book Slaying Goliath. I can’t think of a better way for you to spend a few free minutes on this day than to read this wonderful speech.

This is the only post you will receive today. Enjoy the day. Read this speech.

 

J.M. Dawson Lecture on Religious Liberty

“Religious Liberty, the Public School, and the Soul of America”

Baylor University

October 7, 2019

 

     I am deeply honored to deliver the J.M. Dawson Lecture on the Separation of Church and State, and I am humbled to offer a few remarks in the name and legacy of this remarkable Baptist leader and great American on the bedrock principle of religious liberty and its practical corollary, the separation of the church and the state in public affairs.

 

     When I spoke recently with my oldest granddaughter Corley, who is age 10, she asked me what I was doing. I told her I was preparing a sermon for my friends at Baylor University on “Religious Liberty, the Public School, and the Soul of America.” She said, “Papa Charlie, you always use the biggest words… what does all that mean?”

 

     I learned a long time ago that if the preacher can’t explain a concept to a child, then he or she doesn’t quite get it either. So, I drew a breath and said something like this, “Sweetie, God made us free people. No one can make you love God. No one can prevent you from loving God. It is our choice. All faith in God is voluntary. It is your decision. No one can make that decision for you. Not your parents, not your friends, not the president or the police or the law or the government. Only you.”

 

     Then this granddaughter of two Baptist preachers on her mama and her daddy’s side (she doesn’t have a chance) said, “I know, Papa Charlie! We talked about that at church. And, we talked about that at school too.”

 

Religious Liberty

 

     Throughout our lives, we have had a sustained theological critique of the Enlightenment and its emphasis on the individual. This project of correction, as I understand it, notes that the philosophical framework through which the modern sensibility has been shaped places undue importance on the autonomy of the individual and gives inadequate attention to the influence of community. There has been something of a robust debate about this dialectic between the individual and the community, about the historically baptist and catholic understandings of authority and epistemology, and the cultural, moral, and theological implications of these respective worldviews. This university has been a key participant in this debate. Some of you here today have contributed significantly to it.

 

     It certainly makes sense to me. As a pastor for over 40 years, I have abundantly observed folks who believe all reality begins and ends with themselves, and who exercise little submission to anyone or anything but themselves. We have this psychological and spiritual dysfunction on vivid display in our highest leaders today. We have certainly paid a high price for this narcissism. We like the immortal figure of Greek mythology, fixate on ourselves, and die in the process.

 

     But, we do not have to fall for the myth of autonomous individualism to affirm the irreducible and inviolate freedom of the human conscience. In this day of mass society, where corporate conglomerates monitor our every thought, news networks disseminate state propaganda, media machines determine our daily consumption, and pastors become mouthpieces for Caesar, that we need a recovery of individual freedom. Isn’t it the day and time for us to reaffirm the power and freedom of the individual, and to call for a new assertion of individual rights and responsibilities, and to inculcate all over again in our students and congregants an individual and personal decision-making power?

 

     Forgive the patriarchal references, but I remember Will Campbell saying at Mississippi College in 1978 something to this effect: “I am less free than my daddy, my daddy was less free than my granddaddy, and my granddaddy was less free than my great-granddaddy.” I had no clue then what on earth he meant by such a cryptic remark. But I do now. And so do you.

 

     We today are like the Grand Inquisitor of Dostoevsky’s famous story who has Christ arrested for cursing humanity with freedom. The Inquisitor concluded that Christ made a strategic error in not turning stones to bread, not casting himself off the pinnacle of the Temple, not ruling over the kingdoms of this world, for these things would have sealed his leadership and people would have followed him. But instead, Christ remained free, and gave us the burden of freedom. The Grand Inquisitor says, “anyone who can appease a man’s conscience can take his freedom away from him.” No kidding. We see it every day.

 

     God has created human freedom as a reflection of God’s own freedom, God’s own non-contingency, as the theologians would put it. The individual liberty accorded every person is a work of God in Creation, and an integral feature of human worth and dignity.

 

      A core component of this freedom is at work in the realm of religion. Religious liberty and is the right and choice of the human—the “inalienable” right, as Jefferson immortally put it—to worship God according to the compulsion of his or her own individual conscience, or not to worship God at all.

 

     To say the term “religious freedom” is to speak a paradox of immense power and implication. The very impulse of religion is submission to a power outside oneself, to cast oneself in categorical terms upon God in a posture of what Schleiermacher called “absolute dependence.” The project of any religious concern is the relinquishment of one’s own autonomy to the hegemony of God.  

  

     In a sinful world, full of idols that vie for our submission, the individual made in the image of God is the only entity competent to make this decision. Christ quoted the Psalmist in his reply to Satan in the temptation in the wilderness, “You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.” This is the great baptist understanding. There is no other legitimate and competent authority other than the individual to make a religious decision. This is what we mean when we speak of “soul competency,” as E.Y. Mullins put it:

     “Religious liberty excludes the imposition of religious creeds by ecclesiastical authority. Confessions of faith by individuals or groups of men [and woman], voluntarily framed and set forth as containing the essentials of what men [or women] believe to be the Gospel are all right. They are merely one way of witnessing to the truth. But when they are laid upon men’s [or women’s] consciences by ecclesiastical command, or by a form of human authority, they become a shadow between the soul and God, an intolerable yoke, impertinence, and a tyranny.” (“The Baptist Conception of Religious Liberty,” 1923)

     Therefore, all religious activity must be strictly voluntary on the part of the individual. There can be no coercion in these matters, and certainly no collusion with the state in them. In fact, no institution whether the church or the state, possesses any competency to make any religious decision on behalf of an individual. Virginia baptist preacher John Leland put it this way:

 

“Let every man speak freely without fear, maintain the principles that he believes, worship according to his own faith, either on God, three Gods, no God, or twenty Gods; and let government protect him in so doing, i.e., see that he meets with no personal abuse, or loss of property, from his religious opinions.”

 

     The corollary to this God-given religious liberty is the principle of the strict separation of the church from the state. In our work in Pastors for Texas Children, we refer to religious liberty as a gift from God to all people, and note that James Madison did not make it up. God did. Madison took an eternal spiritual truth that God authored and wrote it down in an extraordinary sentence that comprises the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

 

     Leland’s influence over James Madison is well-known by everyone in this room today. When Madison learned that Leland might challenge him for his seat in the House of Representatives, Madison forged a compromise with Leland that resulted in the popular baptist preacher standing down from his electoral challenge in exchange for Madison’s championing of the principle of church/state separation. And the rest, as we say, is history.

 

     It is not an overstatement to say that religious liberty is the principle upon which our nation was founded. A free church in a free state. And long before America came along the first pastor of the church told his congregation at Galatia, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand fast, therefore, and do not submit to a yoke of slavery.”

 

     Corley, my ten year old granddaughter, knows this. She learned it at church. And she learned it at school.

 

 

The Public School

 

     The public school is the building block of American democracy. It is the cornerstone of our national life. It was determined at the outset of our Republic that the American experiment might have a chance of succeeding if we educated all our children in a public trust—not just those fortunate enough by reason of their class and station to receive an education.

 

     In 1785 John Adams said, 

 

“The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.”

 

Clearly, this founding father of our Republic saw public education as central to our social contract and fundamental to the provision of the common good.

 

     Universal education is a moral mandate rooted in the faith tradition. In the creation story itself, God brought all of creation to the human to see what the human would name it. This “naming” impulse is education. It is central to the first charge God gives to the human, “to be fruitful and multiply, replenish the earth, and subdue it.”   

  

     The first schools in America were founded by faith communities.  Shortly thereafter, at the dawn of our Republic, people of faith realized that an educated populace was essential for the preservation of democracy and self-governance.  Therefore, public education for all children in America was birthed out of a moral sensibility. That conviction was encoded in constitutions of the respective states as our nation expanded westward. Virtually every state constitution has a mandate for public education.  Our own Texas State Constitution in Article 7, Section 1, says this: 

“A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.”

     For these reasons of profound moral and religious motivation, public school educators often are faith leaders themselves. They serve as pastors, ministers, elders, deacons, Sunday school teachers, youth and children’s leaders, committee chairpersons, mission and music directors, accompanists, and many other ministry positions in the life of the church.

 

     It is axiomatic among congregational pastors that the persons we turn to for religious instruction of our children are our public school teachers. Furthermore, it is common for a local church pastor’s spouse to teach in the nearby public school.  This has been a time-honored clergy couple vocational package for decades.  Our sons and daughters are employed in the public schools as coaches, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and custodians.

 

     Public schools are filled with many people of faith. These teachers, principals, and school staff bow their heads in our houses of worship with us, serve and fellowship alongside us, and model their faith in schools and classrooms, following the spirit of 1 Peter 4:10, “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.”

 

     This is why an affirmation of universal and public education can be found in the denominational documents of all faiths.  It is a universal human right accorded every child be virtue of being on God’s planet.

 

     Schools and churches remain inextricably bound together in every community. 90% of our children in our churches attend public schools. The rest attend all the other models of education, whether private, online, and home schools. We appropriately affirm all these models of education.  Indeed, our congregations are comprised of leaders in all these diverse school models.

 

     We see the local public school and its classroom as a center of God’s love.  Education is a gift from Almighty God accorded to every human being regardless of race, religion, economic status, and special need.  The public school, unlike the private school, receives and accepts every single child that shows up on its steps, and meets that child’s needs as sensitively and lovingly as possible. 

 

     Our loved ones and fellow church members do not leave God at the door of the school house as they go about their daily duties.  They carry the love and grace of God with them every hour of every day.  Indeed, they show love, unconditional acceptance, and physical assistance to children who have special needs, come from emotionally deprived circumstances, and suffer the ill-effects of crushing poverty. It’s what a teacher does.  It’s a calling before God.

 

     My own daughter-in-law, who is a public school educator, did not get the memo that God has been taken out of our schools.  She takes the longsuffering love that she showers on our grandchildren into the classroom with her, and pours it out on children from the community all day long. Corley is not the only recipient of it. All the children in her classroom receive it.

 

     Our neighborhood and community public schools are the primary vehicles for perpetuating civil society, promoting human equality, strengthening our economy, and ensuring continued democratic reform in our nation and world. 

 

     The public school is the proving ground for religious liberty and the principle of church/state separation. Here our children witness firsthand that their own religious experience is not given preference over anyone else’s. Here they see early on the tremendous power of voluntary and personal faith, that faith is something expressed and brokered by them—not by some official institutional leader. To use a familiar term, they discover their own individual priesthood.

 

     Public education advances moral and civic values through early investments to give every student a fair shot and the tools needed to pursue a more prosperous, self-sufficient future. These investments reap significant long-term economic dividends and savings generated from fewer societal problems, benefiting all of us.

 

     By investing in public education, we invest in the future of 50 million American schoolchildren. This basic investment is the key to a child’s future economic mobility, the financial stability of families, and our long-term economic prosperity. We know, because it is well-documented, the direct correlation between education achievement and economic viability.

 

     As we have noted, our spouses and church members routinely teach in our public schools. Often in our towns, the public school district is the chief employer and economic generator of our communities.  As goes the financial health of our public schools, goes the financial health of our churches.  The school is the center of vitality and meaningful, life-enriching activity for our people.  One only need look at the importance of Friday Night Football for folks to see this.

 

     It is the public schools that serve all children. Not just those of economic means, or whose parents are engaged, or who are from stable homes, or who perform well academically. But, all.

 

     Over 60 percent of Texas schoolchildren are economically disadvantaged. Public schools cannot be expected to overcome the challenges created by rising poverty, and especially when they are educating more students with less money. The last thing these poor neighborhoods need is to be stripped of their remaining vitality.  

 

     Texas ranks near the bottom in per-pupil spending nationwide. Bear with a brief history of Texas education policy. In 2011, devastating funding cuts forced school districts to lay off teachers, increase class sizes, and reduce pre-kindergarten programs. In 2013, Texas legislators restored only a portion of the cuts — about 60 percent —leaving a gaping deficit in education funding. In 2015, schools also had to accommodate for student growth, totaling 300,000 more students than in 2011. In 2017, House Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock’s proposal to infuse $3 billion new dollars into the public education system was pulled from the floor by that good man because he didn’t have the votes to pass it. Only in this year’s session did we finally get $6.5 billion new dollars for our children’s public education—and only after Texas voters retired some key legislators who oppose public education in the 2018 elections.

 

     These are profound moral, Biblical, constitutional, and economic reasons for universal education paid for by the public. The case for quality public education is overwhelming.

 

     So, we wonder what the real agenda is in our legislative assault on public schools? We have witnessed firsthand the cruel attack on our public education system as a “monstrosity.” We are more than a little outraged to hear from some of our elected officials that our public schools are “Godless.”  We have heard with our own ears loose talk of our schools as “failed” and our teachers as “incompetent.” Then, when our own Texas legislature began churning out bills designed specifically to demoralize teachers—vouchers, unlimited charter school expansion, opportunity school districts, tuition tax credits, A-F school rating, parent trigger—our good faith pastoral nature to give benefit of the doubt began to cave to the unpleasant conclusion of something more insidious unfolding before our eyes:  the intentional dismantling of the Constitutionally mandated public trust of universal education.

 

     The privatization of the public trust of universal education is a thinly veiled disguise to turn the local public school into a profit center for the personal financial gain of a few. State legislatures all over our country are being pressured by rich interests to divert already stretched dollars from our public schools to fund private and charter schools.  We know that the private schools are not asking for this support; they do not want government interference and intrusion into their private assemblies. That is the reason they established the private school in the first place.

 

     We are deeply troubled by the government expansion and entitlement programs undergirding privatization policies.  Private school vouchers and so-called “school choice” initiatives are nothing but government giveaway programs with no accountability or oversight.  Absent are the myriad stewardship measures the public schools must submit to give account for how state dollars are being spent.  We hear about these overwrought accountability rules from our family and church members all the time.

 

     We decry the expansion of unlimited charter schools as a replacement for our traditional community and neighborhood public schools, the avalanche of burdensome assessment measures our teachers and students are subjected to, and the de-professionalization of teaching through low wages and bad conditions.

 

     We must prioritize the adequate funding of our institutions of public education for the benefit of all Texans. Up until the 86th Legislative session, the previous Texas legislatures have seen contentious fights over public education policy and the dramatic cuts to public school funding. This must stop now.

 

The Soul of America

 

     There are two competing visions for the soul of our nation: one weakens the public and one strengthens it. On one side, there is a drive to de-fund public education, de-professionalize teaching, misuse test scores to declare schools as failing, and institute paths to privatize schools in the name of school reform. These privatization schemes take the form of private school vouchers, for-profit virtual schools, and corporate chain charter schools that do not serve all students equally.

 

     The other vision is to provide adequate funding for all schools, implement high quality and full day pre-kindergarten instructional programs that start our youngest learners on their path to educational success, raise the bar with higher standards and more respect for the teaching profession, focus on a rich instructional program instead of a narrow overemphasis on testing, and engage community partners in support for neighborhood schools and the children and families they serve.

 

     Those advocating the privatization of public schools have attacked the public education system and falsely labeled neighborhood schools as failures. This arbitrary judgment has been exposed as a cynical strategy to divert public education monies for private purposes, and has brought advocates like Pastors for Children to the fight against privatization and in support of initiatives that tell the true story about the value of our public schools.

 

     The “choice” that corporate chain charters claim to offer parents and students is illusory. It is really these private operators who exercise their own freedom to choose which students they will recruit and retain and which students they will exclude or filter out. And the latter group disproportionately includes Hispanics, African-Americans, English Language Learners, students with disabilities, and students who are at risk because of disciplinary or academic difficulties.  These children are our neighbors too.

 

     The private school voucher, regardless of the euphemism by which it is falsely named, will not begin to cover the cost of a private education that even approximates the quality of the education that poor child receives in the traditional public school.  Quality private education costs far more than what the voucher covers.  Furthermore, there is no transportation allotment attached to the voucher. One surely notices that private schools are not located in poor neighborhoods.  How would the poor child get to the private school even with a voucher?

 

     As we have said, the poorest children among us attend public schools.  They are the places these children are taught, fed, affirmed, and loved.  62% of the 5.4 million schoolchildren in Texas attend public schools.  Private schools do not exist to care for poor children in this way, nor do they intend to accept the influx of poor children into their schools through vouchers. That is the very reason private schools are private in the first place.  It is as morally wrong for the State of Texas to divert already stretched public dollars for underwriting the religious mission of private church and parochial schools, as it is for the state to require intrusive accountability measures for the private schools that receive that public money. Let private schools remain private, public schools remain public.

 

     The chief objection we have to vouchers is the inherent religious liberty violations of them. The Bill of Rights of the Constitution of the State of Texas, Article 1, Section 6 and 7 states this:  “No man shall be compelled to attend, erect or support any place of worship, or to maintain any ministry against his consent. No money shall be appropriated, or drawn from the Treasury for the benefit of any sect, or religious society, theological or religious seminary; nor shall property belonging to the State be appropriated for any such purposes.”  Clearly, using tax dollars for religious private schools violates this principle. 

 

     Do Texas Christians really want their tax money to fund Muslim private schools?  By last count, we have eleven madrassas in the state of Texas.  Do Muslim folks want their money underwriting Baptist church schools? Do Texas Baptists really want their tax money to fund Roman Catholic schools that teach the infallibility of the Pope?  Do Texas Catholics really want their tax money funding Baptist schools that teach children the priesthood of all believers?

 

     Let us rededicate ourselves to these children in our public education system. Rather than again fixating on controversial, unproven policies that further impair our public schools, let us reclaim our collective will to pursue proposals that give our schools the support they need to prepare our children for the economy they will inherit, and create.

 

     Pastors for Children are mobilizing congregational leaders to do precisely this. We have three objectives in our work:  1) Get the congregation involved in assistance ministries in your local neighborhood school, always under the authority of the school principal and in deference to God’s gift of church/state separation; 2.) Get congregational leaders engaged in public education advocacy by bringing your influence to bear on state legislators who shape education policy for our children; and 3.) Engage in electoral races not to endorse candidates, but to endorse the justice provision of quality public education for all children.

 

     We are now in six states: Texas, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Florida. We have held meetings and conversations with faith leaders in a dozen other states where we will soon plant our work.

 

     Let’s provide our children the education that our community provided us. Their future, and ours, depends on it. Let us rededicate ourselves to these children in our public education system. We have an absolute and total obligation to our children. Not just the few. Not just the privileged. Not just our own. All children. 

 

   The great equalizer in American life is the neighborhood public school. It is the laboratory for our democracy. It is the teller of our national history and story. It is the training ground for citizenship in this great land. It is the discovery zone where our children uncover their own God-given talent, realize their own significance, understand the power of their own individuality, and locate their own place within the larger world of their community. It is the social and communal context where the values of our faith are incarnated. It is the meeting place for the widening diversity of our American life. The public school is the shared space where we nurture civic virtue, cultivate mutual respect, practice tolerance across racial, class, gender, political, and religious lines, and preserve and protect God’s Common Good.

 

Two prominent civil rights legal groups joined to support the decision by the state of Maine not to use public funds for religious schools.

PFPS Urges Appellate Court to Uphold Maine’s Decision Not to Send Public Funds to Religious Schools
Public Funds Public Schools (PFPS) has filed an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief in federal appellate court in Carson v. Makin, a case challenging the State of Maine’s decision not to use public education funding to pay for tuition at private religious schools.
PFPS, a joint initiative of Education Law Center (ELC) and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), is a national campaign to ensure that public funds are used to support and maintain public education and are not diverted to private schools.
As in other states, Maine’s constitution contains an education clause requiring the State to maintain and support a system of public schools available to all Maine children. To carry out this mandate, the State Legislature permits “school administrative units” that do not operate their own public schools for geographic or historical reasons to pay tuition to approved, nonsectarian private schools on behalf of resident children. Participating private schools must comply with a host of legal requirements to ensure they meet State education standards for an appropriate, nondiscriminatory education.
In 2018, three Maine families filed a federal lawsuit challenging the Legislature’s longstanding decision to limit the program to nonreligious schools. The district court rejected the plaintiffs’ arguments that the State’s exclusion of religious schools from the tuition program violates their rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.
The plaintiffs appealed, and the case is now before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. PFPS submitted an amicus brief in support of the Maine Commissioner of Education’s defense of the law, urging the appellate court to affirm the lower court’s decision.
PFPS’s brief emphasizes Maine’s compelling interest under the state constitution to preserve the carefully regulated tuition program in its current form. The brief explains that inclusion of religious schools would undermine the State’s construction of a limited program to fulfill its education clause duty in the narrow circumstances where a traditional public school is not available.
The amicus brief also details how expanding the program to religious schools would divert significant resources from Maine’s already underfunded public education system. Finally, it warns that, because religious schools often discriminate based on characteristics such as religion and disability, including them in the tuition program would entangle the State in regulating matters of religion or force it to fund discrimination.
“PFPS supports Maine’s decision not to spend limited public education funds on tuition for religious schools,” said Jessica Levin, ELC Senior Attorney and PFPS Director. “Unnecessarily expanding the tuition program would undermine the State’s constitutional commitment to provide an adequate public education to every child because it would divert funding away from a public school system that needs more, not fewer, resources.”
 “Our brief highlights Maine’s longstanding commitment to providing every child with an opportunity to attend school in an environment free from discrimination. We urge the court to uphold the legal framework promoting this essential goal,” said Sam Boyd, SPLC Senior Staff Attorney.”
For more information on voucher litigation and PFPS amicus briefs, visit the Litigation page of the PFPS website.
Press Contact:
Sharon Krengel
Policy and Outreach Director
Education Law Center

Perhaps you laughed, perhaps you were astonished when you read that Republicans in Ohio in the House voted for a law that would allow a student’s religious beliefs to give the wrong answers on science tests.

Peter Greene shows that the proposed bill is even worse than we thought.

He begins:

It’s called the “Ohio Student Religious Liberties Act of 2019” and it sets out to accomplish a few things:

It removes the limits on exercising expression of student religious beliefs. The old, struck-out language  said the board of education could limit said expression to lunch period or other noninstructional time. That’s the piddly stuff.

Under the new language, “religious expression” (the stuff no longer limited to non-instructional time) includes prayer, gatherings (clubs, prayer groups, etc), distribution of written materials, and, well, anything religious, actually, including wearing religious gear or “expression of a religious viewpoint” (as long as it’s not obscene or indecent or vulgar). Cue the Church of the Flying Spagetti Monster and the local Satanic Temple; if a student offers a prayer to Satan in the middle of English class and some Christians in the class find that indecent and vulgar, can it be suppressed? Congratulations to the first batch of lawyers and judges that are going to have to sort this out. Double congratulations to whatever government body ends up being responsible for determining which religions are state-certified to be protected under this law.

Students hall have access to school facilities before, during and after school that school hours to the same extent that secular activities may do so. Place your bets now on how many schools will simply ban all before and after school activities in order to sidestep this.

Forget about separation of church and state. The Good News evangelicals will convene their meetings in the middle of math and science classes.

The Founders were wiser than we when they sought to separate church and state, to be sure that every individual was free to practice their own religion (or lack thereof) in their own way outside of the public school.

Thus continues our nation’s slide into a pit of religious intolerance and invasions of religious liberty, all–ironically– in the name of religious freedom.

We are entering into a strange era where religious belief is being permitted to trump scientific fact.

Ohio legislators in the House passed legislation allowing students to receive credit for wrong answers on science tests if their answer is based on their religious beliefs.

Does anyone think that actions such as this one will prepare students to live and thrive in the modern world? Will students so ill prepared with knowledge and understanding of the scientific method be prepared for careers in science, engineering or technology or any other field that requires a firm grasp of evidence and reality? Will they even know how to think critically about history and current affairs?

Every Republican in the House supported the bill. It now moves to the Republican-controlled Senate.

The Ohio legislature is also enthusiastic about charter schools and vouchers.

Former Governor John Kasich presents himself to a national audience as a “moderate” but it was under his leadership that this kind of zealotry took root in Ohio.