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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 09/06/2012

The real wall of separation in public schools

Contentious battles about school prayer and how much religion should be a factor in what students learn in school are heating up across the country. These are important discussions, and here’s what’s going on in a post written by Adam Laats, who teaches in the Graduate School of Education at Binghamton University in Binghamton, N.Y., where he is an assistant professor of history and director of the university’s Center for the Teaching of American History.

By Adam Laats

Voters in Missouri recently approved — by overwhelming margins — a constitutional amendment guaranteeing students’ rights to pray quietly in public schools. But Missouri’s amendment does more than that. Missouri now joins New Hampshire in erecting a new and potentially devastating wall of separation in public schools. 

The new rules represent an effort by activists to throw up barricades around the minds of individual students. Meanwhile, they redirect resources that could be spent on education to fund lawsuits, bankroll public face-offs and support activist groups and political campaigns.

Students can’t learn this way. Schools can’t work this way.   

Missouri’s constitution will include two new rights. Students will be able to “express their beliefs about religion in written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of their work.” And no Missouri student will be “compelled” to take part in any “academic assignments or educational presentations that violate his or her religious beliefs.”

The implications of these phrases are breathtakingly broad.  A student could write a research paper about evolution in which he only consults the story told in Genesis. Parents could opt out of any literature in which characters express doubt about God. 

New Hampshire’s legislature passed a similar law in January. House Bill 542 allows any family in New Hampshire, for any reason, to demand alternative curricula from their public schools.

These kinds of parental objections are not new. 

Throughout the 1920s, parents and activists mobilized to keep objectionable ideas out of public schools. This movement culminated most famously in the 1925 Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee. At that trial, jurors upheld Tennessee’s right to ban the teaching of evolution outright.  But the teaching of evolution was only one of a list of pernicious ideas targeted in the 1920s.  In 1924, for instance, Congress banned teachers in Washington, D.C., from teaching “partisan politics, disrespect to the Holy Bible, or that ours is an inferior form of government.” 

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Epperson v. Arkansas (1968) that anti-evolution laws violated the First Amendment, but efforts to protect students from dangerous ideas have never gone away. Most famously, in 1974, Kanawha County, est Virginia, endured months of a bitter and sometimes extremely violent school boycott, as parents objected to the content of English Language Arts textbooks.  They worried that excerpts from Eldridge Cleaver, e.e. cummings, and Freud undermined their children’s moral universe. In the end, the school board returned most of the books to the schools, though parents had to sign permission slips to allow their children to use them. 

In recent years, parents in other states have filed lawsuits over the content of school textbooks, citing religious objections to evolution, humanism, disrespect for authority, and other themes.  From a practical point of view, no school can function if it must tailor curricula to fit any objection from any family. 

What books will school districts purchase?  What ideas will teachers include?  Can we even agree on the ideas our public schools will include, at least in broad outline? One of the most important public functions of education must be to expose students to new ideas and new ways of thinking while accepting that some of these might potentially contradict some traditional religious ideas. 

We do not want schools that bulldoze over religious objections — but we need to include in one learning community all students, parents, teachers and administrators.  Most importantly, we must not sidestep the issue by building new walls of separation, dividing each student one from another.  

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