Formal education must include moral values.  In some subjects that fact is overwhelmingly obvious.  History and literature, for instance.  At the most basic level, the selection of literature reveals an entire worldview.  What counts as a good book?  Is it Holden Caulfield trying to pick his way through the field of phonies to discover an authentic life?  Or is it Abraham pulling Isaac up to the top of the mountain to fulfill God’s cruel command?

But such moral values are embedded in every subject, even those that seem to be mere delivery of information.  Some people might suggest that schools should simply teach students academic skills: reading, writing, arithmetic.  But what would such a value-free classroom look like?  Will women and girls be allowed to participate?  Will there be tuition?  Will there be an authoritative teacher at the front of the room dispensing knowledge, keeping order, and evaluating student work?  Or will it be a collective effort, each student responsible for his own learning?  Will students vote to decide policy?  The classroom and school structure dictate a comprehensive set of values, even when the subject matter is limited to such seemingly neutral subjects as geometry and plane mechanics.

Schooling these days is in a woefully chaotic moral condition.  Officially, most public schools are meant to be ruled by a value system of pluralism.  Not verging into the choppy waters of cultural relativism, in which all cultural values are deemed equal, pluralism hopes to insist on a moral code of tolerance and acceptance.  Every type of culture and belief will be celebrated.  Diversity will be embraced as the new path to moral relevance.

All well and good.  From the traditionalist perspective, however, pluralism has the crippling internal flaw of claiming to welcome all cultures, while in fact it often belittles or even criminalizes traditionalist beliefs.  Just recently, a spate of legal cases involving teachers’ religious views has illustrated this trend.  First, from the San Diego area, Bradley Johnson was ordered to remove large signs from his math classroom containing such slogans as “In God We Trust,” “One Nation Under God,” “God Bless America,” and “God Shed His Grace On Thee.”  The California Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Johnson did not have free-speech rights to keep such signs in his classroom.  The Court reasonably concluded that such slogans, though they came from well-known songs or foundational historical documents such as the Declaration of Independence, created an atmosphere that unacceptably breached the wall of separation between church and state.  They implied that the school endorsed Judeo-Christian belief.

It seems as if that was exactly Johnson’s intent.  Johnson was not merely a patriotic teacher with a yen for big banners.  He was also the faculty leader of the school’s Christian Club.  When the school offered to replace his banners with reproductions of documents such as the Declaration of Independence, Johnson refused.  When another teacher suggested that his signs could shock students from other religious backgrounds and make them feel unwelcome, Johnson allegedly replied, “Sometimes, that’s necessary.” 

Johnson wanted to make the point that although his traditional religious message was prohibited, the district allowed other teachers to display messages from a wide array of other religions and value systems.  He conducted visits to the four other high schools in the district and found a wide array of displays to confirm his charge, including a Tibetan prayer flag, a John Lennon poster with the lyrics from “Imagine,” a poster of Malcolm X, and posters of Mahatma Gandhi and the Dalai Lama.

Johnson provoked this court case to make his point.  Schools, in his opinion, promoted every value system except that of traditional Christian patriotism.  Another recent teacher controversy came about more accidentally.  In Union Township, New Jersey, special education teacher Viki Knox came under fire for criticizing the school’s support of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History month.  The school had put up displays that celebrated prominent homosexuals.  Knox complained on her Facebook page that, although she loved those who were gay, her religious beliefs taught her that homosexuality was “against the nature and character of God.”  Furthermore, Knox argued that a public high school was “not the setting to promote, encourage, support and foster homosexuality.”

Now her job is on the line.  Not technically for her religious beliefs.  But she is accused of being unable to perform her duties—duties that include defending every student from bullying and harassment—because she does not agree with the moral values of the school.

Time will tell what lies in store for Ms. Knox.  But the story illustrates the cluster of values that public schools actively promote.  The large banner that offended Knox promoted the notion that all people have equal value.  It attacked the idea that homosexuals could or should be discriminated against.  For the record, I agree with those notions.  I think people have equal value and sexual orientation must not be used as grounds for discrimination.  The important point here, however, is that those values themselves discriminate against certain religious traditions.  They would make students from fundamentalist churches and families feel just as excluded as Bradley Johnson’s banners would make atheist students feel excluded.

Supporters of such pro-homosexuality values in public schools might argue that such students ought to feel excluded.  Students who do not embrace the equal rights and status of all fellow students, regardless of race, creed, or sexual orientation, must be forced to change their beliefs.  That is a tricky perspective.  Especially if, as did Knox and as do many other conservative Christians, religious students advocate love for homosexual students, but not for homosexual behavior.  Such religious folks do not suggest violence or even ostracism for homosexuals.  But they also do not recognize their sexual orientation as legitimate.  Can public schools force such traditionalists to change their religious beliefs?  Doesn’t that violate the wall of separation between church and state?

Finally, consider another recent court case that illustrates this bias of public schools and courts against traditional religion.  As I noted in a recent post,  we don’t have to merely imagine that anti-Christian statements by teachers might be treated with less severity than pro-Christian statements.  The California Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the same Court that ruled against Bradley Johnson, decided that James Corbett could not be held to account for statements that belittled traditional Christian belief.  In his Advanced Placement European History class, Corbett had created a hostile atmosphere for any student who might have believed in a young earth or in the special creation of humanity by God.  Corbett repeatedly ridiculed such belief.  Like the New Jersey posters supporting the notion that homosexuality must be celebrated, such an environment breaches the wall of separation of church and state, by attacking one set of beliefs.

Yet the Court let Corbett off the hook.  Corbett, they decided, could claim “qualified immunity” for offending religious students.

The wider picture is clear: Public schools do promote a certain set of moral values.  Most of those values are hard to argue with.  Who could deny the value of teaching young people that every person deserves equal respect, regardless of race, creed, gender, or sexual orientation?  Who could deny that students should learn to question their own belief systems; that schools must force students to learn to think deeply about such notions?  But we must also recognize that religious notions are embedded in those laudable values.  Students and teachers from traditionalist Christian backgrounds will feel excluded.  They will feel that public schools are hostile environments.

Public schools and school law have a very difficult time wrestling with these moral conundrums.  Their value system of pluralism and acceptance does not recognize itself as one system among others.  It claims, rather, to embrace and celebrate all cultures.  It is incapable, though, of embracing and celebrating any value system that insists on a set of immutable, transcendent values.  In America, that excludes a very large number of families.  It creates a hostile religious environment for all those who believe in the foundational truth of Biblical teachings.  Even worse, it does so while claiming to be opposed to the creation of a hostile religious environment for anyone.  Since it claims to be a neutral arbiter of moral values, it is incapable of easily recognizing its role as a moral agent.

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  1. Yasha Hartberg

     /  December 4, 2011

    I’d be curious to know if you see a way out of this paradox or if, as with so many other conundrums of modern society, this is simply an intractable conflict inherent in the system.

  2. Yasha,
    I think there is a solution. Personally, I think we need a pluralist public school system. Again, speaking for myself, and not for the traditionalist position, I think the problem is not one of morality, but of hypocrisy. That is, traditionalists are able to identify the hypocrisy of public schools that speak in terms of welcoming every value system, while oppressing traditional value systems. The solution, I think, will be as simple as making the value system of pluralism frankly and explicitly one that discriminates against traditionalist values that insist on absolute right and wrong. This will eliminate traditionalists’ claim to being a uniquely persecuted group.
    Something like this was done in postwar Germany. Nazi positions and denials of the Holocaust were made illegal. Neo-Nazis were not able to claim sympathy for the fact that they were not allowed to participate in public life. I do not mean to equate traditionalist Christian belief in America with neo-Nazism. But I do think that the heart of this complaint is that traditionalists feel they can weaken the moral claims of pluralism by identifying the fact that traditional beliefs are not welcomed equally.

    • Yasha Hartberg

       /  December 5, 2011

      I understand where you’re coming from and I feel it would be refreshing if the multiculturalists’ own biases were made explicit. At the same time, though, it seems like this particular solution walks some dangerous constitutional ground. It is, in essence, consciously excluding a whole class of religious belief and practice from the public sphere. This places government in the position of deciding which Christians get to have a voice in the public schools, something the establishment clause would seem to expressly forbid. It also seems tricky in its application. For instance, would a display of the 10 Commandments be okay as long as it had been initiated by a liberal Methodist congregation that did not insist on absolute right and wrong?

  3. Yasha,
    But this HAS been the US Supreme Court’s position, as I read it. In cases such as McCollum (1948) and Lemon v. Kurtzman (sp?)(1971 or 1970), the Court has ruled that government may support students attending religious schools, but not the schools themselves.
    The most common traditionalist/ “Christian Right” legal response has been to establish that the ideology I’ve been calling “multiculturalism” is actually the state-sponsored religion of “secular pluralism.” That position was upheld by Federal Judge Brevard Hand in Alabama in the late 1970s. The US Supreme Court, however, in the mid-1980s, overruled Hand. But in their decision, writing in dissent, William Rehnquist showed a marked sympathy for Hand’s reading of constitutional history. The majority of the Supreme Court, however, ruled that a silent school prayer established religion unfairly, but it did not agree that the textbooks in use in those schools established the religion of “secular humanism” unfairly. (Wallace v. Jaffree, 1985 (?)) The way I see it, the Court is basically saying that the traditional religion of Christianity may not be promoted by public schools, but this ideology of “multiculturalism” can be allowed to discriminate against those who do not accept its premises. This has been held to be a legitimate neutrality of the public school toward religion.
    In a similar case that didn’t make it to the US Supreme Court, (Mozert v. Hawkins County, late 1980s–1987, I think) an appeals court in Tennessee ruled against parents’ claims that textbooks promoted “secular humanism.” The parents claimed that the textbooks established a state religion. Courts have not agreed. If the purpose is secular, courts do not see it as a religious impulse. I don’t buy into the conspiracy-mongering that makes up a big part of fundamentalist claims about “secular humanism,” but I do agree that an ideology that acts differentially toward people of different religious beliefs DOES have more impact on state imposition of religious beliefs than most courts have recognized.
    Courts have promoted the notion that multiculturalism CAN be allowed to remain the dominant ideology (or religion, if you agree with the fundamentalist critics) of public schools, even in the face of student and parent complaints that these ideas hurt their fundamentalist religion. The problem, in my view, is that most school folks don’t understand it that way. They don’t explicitly view what they are doing as a religious statement. Rather, they assume multiculturalism to be a value-neutral ideology, one that welcomes people of all backgrounds. I think it will help if such folks recognize that some people may indeed be put out by that ideology.

  4. Yasha Hartberg

     /  December 6, 2011

    All good points, as always, Adam. Nevertheless, there seems something fundamentally different that I’m having trouble articulating about the positions taken by these court decisions and your suggestion that the solution to this tension is “making the value system of pluralism frankly and explicitly one that discriminates against traditionalist values that insist on absolute right and wrong.” If nothing else, the closeness of many of these decisions suggests this is at best murky water. Establishing an official policy of discrimination against particular religious values, though, seems to cross a line, giving fundamentalists a firmer case against the secularist position taught in schools than they currently have.

    I don’t know. As fascinating as I’ve always found these debates, and as emotionally invested as I’ve been in them over the years, I can’t really say that I’ve ever found any hope for resolution in them. While I rather strongly disagree with most fundamentalist positions, I can’t help but feel sympathy for those, like Bradley Johnson, who are called to remove their religious displays while other teachers in the same district are allowed to keep theirs. Similarly, while I believe the notion that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, as opposed to a nation founded by Christians, to be troublesome, I don’t find it particularly honest or helpful to gloss over or ignore entirely the religious commitments of our founders as the secularist position would have us do. And, yet, I fully understand the practical difficulties and even dangers of having schools teach about religion.

    I suppose this is why I so thoroughly enjoy following your blog. You treat these subjects with far more delicacy than most.

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