You may have noticed that private Christian schools are suddenly under immense criticism. Starting with the announcement that Second Lady Karen Pence returned to a teaching job at a Christian school in Virginia, followed almost immediately by controversy over students from Covington Catholic School in Kentucky, there is a sudden frenzy over the existence of religious schools.
One opinion contributor warned in the Huffington Post, “Too many religious schools at all levels regulate the personal conduct of their employees and students, restrict the books teachers can assign or students can read, and demand fealty to narrow constructions of religious identity, while enshrining bigotry into their bylaws.” Another reporter tweeted for help on a story about the dangers of Christian education: “I’m a New York Times reporter writing about #exposechristianschools. Are you in your 20s or younger who went to a Christian school? I’d like to hear about your experience and its impact on your life.”
Why this new outcry against private Christian schools? What are the schools’ offenses? Shockingly, Christian schools have been “exposed” for teaching the same principles Christians have practiced and taught for millennia.
There should be nothing novel about faith-based schools remaining faithful to their doctrines, but for some this is the latest opportunity to attack faithful Americans. Yet, over half a century ago, the United States Supreme Court defined the core of this First Amendment issue in Kedroff v. Saint Nicholas Cathedral, determining that the First Amendment’s restraint on civil authority acknowledges a “spirit of freedom for religious organizations, an independence from secular control or manipulation — in short, power to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine.” And more recently, a unanimous Supreme Court reaffirmed these principles in the Hosanna Tabor case.
Whether a private educational institution is Jewish, Catholic, Protestant or rooted in any other faith, all religious schools have two things in common. First, they aim to teach and develop their students into moral and well-educated individuals. Second, they seek to do so according to their beliefs. Private religious schools primarily exist to perpetuate their faith. They do so by instilling deep and strongly rooted beliefs in those who are the very future of their faith. Can you think of a deeper or more vital calling for any adherent?
But opposition isn’t new. For example, the county of Livington, Michigan refuses to allow a growing Christian school to move into a more suitable building on church property or, for that matter, anywhere else in town, by denying it zoning permits. In essence, they are denying they school’s right to exist anywhere within county limits. (Full disclosure: my law firm, First Liberty Institute, represented Livingston Christian School.)
What many fail to recognize is the vital role private schools play for millions of religious parents. Adherents of many faiths believe that truly educating a person can only be accomplished when it is rooted in faith. Thus, private religious schools aim to enable their students to integrate faith into their studies and development in a cohesive and holistic way.
One of the most obvious ways religious schools accomplish this is through their faculty and staffs. When teachers are devoted to fostering religious worldviews through every subject and interaction, they serve as effective models, mentors, spiritual leaders, and friends. They are in many ways responsible for the very perpetuation of their faith.
Those who do not understand this are frustrated to no end. It is difficult for some to understand why others are unable to separate their faith from certain aspects of life. Thus, they seek to relegate the First Amendment’s “free exercise of religion” to a mere “freedom to worship.”
The less interaction non-adherents have with people of faith, the greater the chasm between the two groups. Worse , the greater the misunderstanding of someone’s faith and faithfulness, the greater the potential for animosity.
Which brings me back to Karen Pence, whose job as an art teacher at a Christian school raised the ire of some in the media because the school requires students and faculty abide by traditional Christian teachings about human sexuality. Of course they “regulate the personal conduct of their employees and students,” assign distinctive readings and projects, and establish norms of behavior in keeping with the tenants of their faith — if they didn’t do such things, they’d just be more expensive public schools.
What’s more, they have every right to do so. The negative outcry fails to recognize the First Amendment protects the right of a Christian school to be Christian or a Yeshiva to be Jewish. The Supreme Court has even recognizedthe “critical and unique role of the teacher in fulfilling the mission of a church-operated school.”
When the public attacks one religious educational institution, the effect is felt by all. The religious environment, character, leadership, and worldview that private schools provide to their students owe no fealty to public sensibilities. Religious teachers of all faiths take on the vital calling to develop children in faith and education. And faith-based schools must remain free to be faith-based.
Chelsey Youman is senior counsel at First Liberty Institute, a non-profit law firm exclusively dedicated to restoring and defending religious freedom for all Americans.