Preserving the First Amendment

From an early age, American children are taught that our country was founded on the concept of freedom of religion: the pilgrims wanted to escape the tyranny of English, where the King would not allow them to practice their faith as they desired, but instead insisted that they follow the Church of England. While the Church of England served many political purposes, Puritans and Lutherans, among other sects of the Christian religion then forming in England, each had their own beliefs about how to show their devotion to God. They were critical of the practices of the Church of England, were persecuted extensively, and finally driven to seek refuge in another county after the discovery of America. Many believed in the New World they could practice their religion as they saw fit, and that government would play a limited role in the practices of the church.

This does not mean that community members were free to reject the dominant religious beliefs in their community, or that laws were not designed around the church’s decrees. Everyone was still expected to demonstrate their devotion to their faith, and abide by Christian law.

Yet, written into the founding documents of our country, in the First Amendment of the Constitution, is the assurance for freedom of religion. From this came the foundation of the concept of separation of Church and State: the belief that government should be separate from religion, and that no laws enacted or enforced should be influenced by religious beliefs, and that the government should not financially support any religious entities. How strictly or loosely this has been followed and interpreted varies throughout our nation’s history, like most regulations, and will most likely be a controversial area for years to come. Despite the challenges faced in maintaining a separation of church and state, considering American cultural foundations and tendancies, the First Amendment has been a guideline for many policies and practices, and it has been largely accepted that the government will neither support nor be directly influenced by any religious organization or congregation. This would include providing funding to religious organizations, creating policy that would discriminate against the beliefs of a particular religion or enforce the teachings of a certain religion, or allowing religious organizations to directly contribute to politicians or political groups, thus influencing the political agenda. In particular, schools have been a highly contested area where the government has often restricted funding to schools affiliated with religious teachings. Schools funded with public monies are required to maintain a stance of tolerance and refrain from lessons that explicitly promote religious doctrine.

There have been long standing debates about how much authority the federal government has over public education, as it has largely been designated to individual states to oversee their own schools. Through providing some funding, however, the federal government has been able to exercise some authority over states, and become involved in some significant decisions relating to the separation of church and state, around such topics as the teaching of creationism, for example. The power of the federal government to dictate state policies relating to education is still minimal, however, and this has been made even more prominent under Trump’s administration.

Since the election of Trump and the appointment of Betsy DeVos as to the Department of Education, much attention has been given to the issue of the privatization of education: using school vouchers to promote “school choice”, giving students “more options”, creating competition to thus inspire school to improve to attract more students, and promote businesses who can better “meet the needs” of students. Theoretically, it might make some sense. Certainly, students should be able to attend qualities schools that can meet their needs. Yet what does this cost the majority of students?

Beyond the debate over support of public versus private schools, however, is one that comes right back to the separation church and state: DeVos and her supporters claim they wish to provide more freedom to the state and local governments for controlling school curriculum, policies, and funding. By reducing federal involvement, state and local governments can design policies they deem “appropriate” and quite simply ignore federal mandates. This provides them the freedom to implement policies which require teachers to present certain “scientific” views such as creationism. It also, in a recent decisions, has allowed funds to be used by religious schools- the Supreme Court ruling of Trinity Luthern vs. the State of Mississippi. Voucher money- money coming from federal funds- can also be used for students to attend religious schools. A bill recently passed in Kentucky will allow for teachers to have “Bible literacy classes. A “Bible literacy” course may be beneficial for understanding different aspects of the religion, but claiming, as Govenor Bevin does, that it is beneficial because “the Bible has a lot of wisdom in it”, seems to inherently promote Christian doctrine over than that of other religions. There seems to be no mention of classes for Koran literacy or Torah literacy.

Besides Betsy DeVos’s complex connections with many different organizations, including a number of religious ones and strongly conservative ones, other members new to the Department of Education have strong religious connections and support policies heavily influenced by their own personal beliefs, such as the Evangelical leader Jerry Falwell , who will seek to further limit regulations and policies relating to sexual assault on college/ university campuses. Historians and politicians have noted that history goes through periods of conservatism and liberalism, much like a pendulum swinging, and it is clear which direction the American pendulum is currently swinging. In some respects, it is strongly tied to financial and economical reasons- who has money, generally has the most power, and certainly these conservative and Christian organizations are utilizing their economic power, and will begin dictating policies according to their beliefs rather than through objective judgements and compromise with other perspectives and beliefs. To claim that the millions of dollars the DeVos family has invested in various organizations has no influence on her decisions and policy choices can not make any logical sense, but that is another issue separate from the one relating to the separation of Church and State.

Are we simply redefining the separation of church and state, or ignoring it and accepting that as a “Christian” nation religion and politics will inevitably be mixed? Is the idea of freedom of religion- of the government refraining from dictating what its citizens should believe or what faith they must practice- something fading into the past once again?

An argument commonly heard against attempts to enforce the principle of freedom of religion is that a particular group is being discriminated against for trying to “express their views”. This misses the primary point of freedom of speech as well as freedom of religion: that everyone have an equal right to express their views, and that others do not attempt to force their views upon others. It means that one particular view is held in higher regard or given any additional privileges that another does not have.

On the surface, this may seem like a minimal threat, and one can argue that students are “free” to go to any school they desire, that they are not being forced to attend a strictly religious institution, and that they are merely being presented with the concept of creationism but not required to “believe” it necessarily. Any mixing of religion and government, however, become complicated, and clear lines must be drawn as to what is acceptable and what defines a practice as being one that violates the separation of church and state. If it is not clearly established, nearly all practices could then be considered acceptable.

Why should we be concerned with this, anyway? How is providing funding to religious school damaging?

When funding is being removed from public schools, that provide the majority of the population with an education, it becomes a problem. When programs that support students with disabilities and after school programs that provide support to students in need are being defunded, it becomes a problem. My concern is less about students being “converted” to a certain belief as it is a concern for the overall quality of education that the average student receives. My concern is for the increasing economic gaps between lower and upper classes, which can only be remedied through educational effort. 

We need informed citizens, and we need those in government roles making responsible, balanced decisions that are based on reasonable facts and evidence, as well as the wishes of the majority of the public. Regardless of your own personal religious beliefs, they do not have a place in education, or in political decisions. Policies can not be formed around only one group’s faith or sense of morality- that is the purpose of the separation of church and state, so that all beliefs are valued and accepted. Education should only be centered around critical skills, and proven facts. Certainly, our students need to understand the variety of religious background that impact our culture, and the culture of their fellow students, but understand does not mean incorporating curriculum only based on one religious perspective, nor does it mean taking away funding from public schools to then provide religious schools with additional funding. Yes, parents should have the right to educate their children according to their religion should they choose to do so, but this does not mean that the public needs to pay for it or that other students should be required to have the same curriculum if it does not align with their personal beliefs or their family’s beliefs. There is a great difference between tolerance and understanding, and presenting multiple perspectives, and commending one set of values and beliefs over others.

I did not imagine myself becoming an educator growing up, but I knew I had a passion for reading and writing, and wanted to do something that would allow me to share that with others. As an educator, I hope to challenge and inspire my students, and to help them grow into compassionate, knowledgeable, and analytical individuals. Being able to think critically about the world around you and engaging in discussions that allow you to appreciate a variety of values and beliefs is essential for not only being successful but also for being able to understand and respect others. As educators, we simply want our students to have futures with potential, and for them to be well informed. We can not progress if education does not allow for students to be exposed to a variety of beliefs, and they also can not be successful if teachers do not have the funding and resources to design lessons that will allow their students to practice skills and have access to diverse content and materials. “School choice” benefits only those in power, and those who stand to benefit financially, as many studies have proven. Students will show academic gains when teachers have proper training and access to resources. Reducing more and more funding from public schools is not going improve the system. Everyone recognizes that there need to be significant changes made to some practices and policies under the current system of public education, but simply taking money away and demanding better performance without real support is simply not a solution. If we want to have well-educated and capable students, we need to demand great support of public education and focus on real practices and policies that can benefit students rather than trying to claim privatization will fix everything.

Education is hardly the only area that is being affected by the new administration- woman’s right and the rights of LGBTQ individuals are also highly at risk, and there have already been many steps taken to reduce the freedoms of these citizens. And the policies are largely the result of the line of separation of Church and State being crossed. Private beliefs are being pushed into policy, regardless of the voice of the majority. Perhaps I sound dramatic, but I myself never imagined I would need to write those words about my own country and therefore do not say them lightly. My hope is that we can maintain the established tradition and essential value of allowing for individual freedom of faith, and restricting public policy that elevates one particular doctrine over others. This is not an attack on Christianity; it is an attack on discriminating against other beliefs in the name of Christianity. Rather than allowing money and greed, along side or under the guise of religious values, to dictate the future of our country, let’s instead guarantee that each and every child has access to a quality education regardless of their zip code, and let’s ensure that our education is based on promoting acceptance and understanding of a broad range of cultural or religious beliefs. Then, and only then, can real change and progress happen.

“America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.” -Abraham Lincoln


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