What does supporting public schools have to do with religious liberty? A lot!
February 22-26, 2021 is Public Schools Week, an occasion for advocates to celebrate the essential work of public schools in our communities. It’s also an appropriate week to call attention to the ongoing legislative efforts to undermine public schools. What does that have to do with the topic of religious liberty? Plenty.
American public schools offer a source of education that aligns with our core democratic ideals and freedoms. Our public schools are a unifying presence among our diverse communities, including various religious communities. Among other things, public schools represent the promise that all students can receive an education that is free of a particular religious perspective. Our public school students should not feel ostracized or like second class citizens because of their faith, including if they choose to have no faith tradition.
BJC has a great resource on religious liberty in public schools. You can access it as a PDF, and they have graphics with the information on social media — you can share it with your friends on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.
This year, the National Coalition for Public Education (NCPE), which includes BJC and other religious liberty advocates, published a toolkit designed to assist legislators and public school advocates in opposing school voucher legislation in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Espinoza v. Montana Dept. of Revenue. The many reasons covered in the NCPE’s publication for opposing school vouchers include upholding principles of religious freedom. Here is an excerpt:
Private school vouchers predominantly fund religious schools. Because private religious schools are unable or unwilling to separate the religious components of the education they offer from their academic programs, it is impossible to prevent a publicly funded voucher from paying for religious activities and education. This conflicts with one of the most dearly held principles of religious freedom—the government should not compel any citizen to fund or support a religion with which they disagree, or even a religion with which they do agree. Parents certainly may choose a religious education for their children, but they may not insist that the taxpayers pay for it.
Furthermore, in accepting public funds, religious schools run the risk of being mired in political debates, battles over regulation and accountability, and disruptive inquiries into their school standards in admission, curriculum, and hiring practices. This kind of oversight that must accompany public funds would not be beneficial for either religious institutions or the government.
In Espinoza, the Supreme Court held that private school voucher programs must include religious schools, even if the state constitution forbids aid to religion. The ruling, which BJC lamented as “disappointing,” undermines state no-aid provisions – provisions designed to protect the institutional separation of church and state. Courts around the country are now wrestling with how to interpret those provisions after Espinoza. As the NCPE Toolkit emphasizes, however, there is no requirement under the Court’s decision that states enact voucher programs in the first place. And there are plenty of reasons to oppose or repeal voucher programs, including our country’s robust commitment to religious liberty for all
Public Schools Week is an ideal time to share on social media why you support public schools. As a public school alum myself, I am grateful for my 10th grade English teacher, Mrs. Freck. She helped me connect with a local newspaper that needed sports stories for our high school football and basketball games. I’ve been writing in one form or another ever since!
This year is a critical time to speak out about the value of public education for students and for your community. You can tell your story of attending or supporting public schools, post a photo from your school days or make a short video for social media. Encourage your friends to share their own stories! When you post, use the hashtags #PublicSchoolProud and #BJCAdvocacy.