It has been said that as long as there are math tests there will be prayer in schools. While that may be true, there is no denying that the role of religion in public education today is a far cry from what the Founders envisioned more than two hundred years ago. With the new school year well underway, it seems appropriate to say a few words about the heritage of America’s public education system, and to remind students (and their parents and teachers) that they probably have more First Amendment rights to express their faith in public schools than they realize.
The institutionalized prejudice against Christianity that exists in current academia is profoundly ironic when seen in the context of history. Of the first 100 universities founded in America, the overwhelming majority were distinguished by 3 characteristics:
(1)They were founded and controlled by one particular denomination.
(2)They housed a theological seminary for that denomination.
(3)They had a minister from that denomination serving as president of the university.
Among those academic lightweights founded more or less as ministerial training schools were Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth (Congregationalist), William and Mary and the University of Pennsylvania (Anglicans), Princeton and Dickinson (Presbyterians), and the College of Rhode Island (now Brown University, Baptists). Harvard’s original motto was Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae “Truth for Christ and the Church.” Today that motto has been abbreviated to the politically correct Veritas. I think a more intellectually honest motto for Harvard and most universities in 2009 America would be, Quid Est Veritas? “What Is Truth?”
Of course, prejudice against Christianity isn’t limited to colleges. In fact, the argument could be made that hostility towards expression of faith is more pervasive at the elementary and the secondary levels. Again, the bitter irony here is that local public schools were originally instituted as places where children would learn Christian principles along with reading, writing, and ‘rithmatic. The Massachusetts Bay settlement passed the “Old Deluder Act” in 1647, which reads in part:
“It being one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures, as in former times by keeping them in an unknown tongue, so in these latter times by persuading from the use of tongues, that so that at least the true sense and meaning of the original might be clouded and corrupted with false glosses of saint-seeming deceivers; and to the end that learning may not be buried in the grave of our forefathers, in church and commonwealth, the Lord assisting our endeavors.
It is therefore ordered that every township in this jurisdiction, after the Lord hath increased them to fifty households shall forthwith appoint one within their town to teach all such children as shall resort to him to write and read, whose wages shall be paid either by the parents or masters of such children, or by the inhabitants in general, by way of supply, as the major part of those that order the prudentials of the town shall appoint; provided those that send their children be not oppressed by paying much more than they can have them taught for in other towns.”
Today, court dockets all over the country are deluged with lawsuits from the ACLU, People for the Separation of Church and State, atheists, and others who seek to eradicate any trace of religious expression from public education. In many instances it only takes a saber-rattling letter from the ACLU to send school boards and superintendents scurrying, without doing their own homework on students’ First Amendment rights. I’m grateful for the Alliance Defense Fund, American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), and others for defending those rights in the face of increasingly litigious and deep-pocketed opposition ( go to the “Victories” tab on the ADF web site to see just how hard the ADF is working).
Ultimately, the best thing parents and teachers can do is educate themselves on their rights in the classroom. I recommend starting with the U.S. Department of Education’s official position on the matter. Specifically, read the section titled, “APPLYING THE GOVERNING PRINCIPLES IN PARTICULAR CONTEXTS,” which speaks to prayer, Bible study, and establishing religious-themed clubs. What is most interesting is what you WON’T find, which is a prohibition against any of those activities. Here is a great resource from the ADF which illustrates just how much freedom Christian students have in public schools.
Make no mistake; there is a war raging over the Judeo-Christian heritage of our culture. The intersection of the First Amendment and public education is an important front in that larger struggle. The next time your child limps home from the front line having been told they can’t quote the Bible, can’t wear a Christian T-shirt, or must take part in a program that offends their deeply held beliefs—don’t be deluded into thinking you have to take it. Do your homework, and fight back.