New Assaults on the Church-State Wall

One of the most fundamental tenets of American democracy, the separation of church and state, is facing new assaults on the public-school front.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2017 in the case out of Columbia, Mo., known as Trinity Lutheran that tax money could be used to pay for a safer playground surface. Since then, proponents of public money to fund a religious agenda have been emboldened to push the envelope even further. Their efforts continue despite an explicit caveat filed as a footnote to the court’s majority opinion:

“This case involves express discrimination based on religious identity with respect to playground resurfacing. We do not address religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination.”

Skirmishes in the ongoing battle are being fought in Jefferson City and in Washington.

The Missouri debate is over a bill that would allow the introduction of the Old Testament and the New Testament to the curriculum in public schools as an elective. The bill (http://bit.ly/HB-267) was filed by freshman state Rep. Ben Baker, R-Neosho, who is dean of students at Ozark Bible Institute and College.

Baker considers his proposal noncontroversial, simply an attempt to broaden the educational horizons of public school students. 

“It just allows school districts to offer the Bible as an elective in high school classes,” the Post-Dispatch quoted Baker as saying. “We’re looking at the book from a historical perspective.”

Critics immediately pointed out that the Bible isn’t the only religious text that Missouri students and their families consider sacred. In response, an amendment was offered that would have included a library of texts, from the Quran to the Book of Mormon to the Upanishads and beyond — an attempt that failed to make it into the final bill that the House overwhelmingly approved and sent to the Senate last week.

But even the pared down list of religious texts, if it passes the Senate and is signed by Gov. Mike Parson, is liable to stir up another legal battle, as it should. The Senate should let the bill die a well-deserved death. The simple distinction between teaching and preaching is too easily ignored when religious texts are introduced in public schools, even as electives. 

Practice religion in a house of worship; keep schools free of religious influence. 

That lesson should also apply in Washington to the latest from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who wants to ease restrictions on whether religiously affiliated organizations may provide services to private schools. 

Under a law known as the Every Student Succeeds Act, needy students who attend private schools are entitled to the same services that would be available if they attended public schools. But the law bars public money from going directly to schools affiliated with religions; instead, schools have to get the services from private contractors.

Traditionally, the law has rightly said that those contracted services can’t come from religious organizations. DeVos wants to get rid of that restriction, citing the Trinity Lutheran decision despite the clear restriction that the court’s majority put on the impact of its ruling.

In a letter to Congress explaining her decision to scrap the limitation on religious organizations as contractors, DeVos said current practice “impermissibly excludes a class of potential equitable service providers based solely on their religious status, just like the state policy that was struck down [in Trinity Lutheran]. “It categorically excludes religious organizations simply because they are religious.” 

Critics of the DeVos move rightly point out the big leap from providing public money for safety at a church playground to providing support from a religious institution for instructional services. The court made that distinction clear, and DeVos is overstepping her bounds.

The publication Education Week quoted Maggie Garrett, vice president for public policy at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, with this reaction:

“Betsy DeVos is neither the Supreme Court nor Congress. She does not get to unilaterally declare that a statute is unconstitutional, especially with a provision that is designed to protect church-state separation, a bedrock of our democracy. Trinity Lutheran was an incredibly narrow decision that was about providing playground material to a church, not about providing educational services to impressionable young schoolchildren.”

Impressionable students are in class to learn, and to learn how to think for themselves. They should be presented material that is free from the point of view of any source, whether it’s religion, political ideology, racial prejudice or other forms of opinion-laced material. If their parents want them to have a religious viewpoint, they should worship outside of school — or not worship — as they choose. 

Keeping religion out of public schools should remain a hallmark of American education.