God, School, and Abuse

Try it. Ask someone what the government should do to restrict parents’ rights to send their kids to religious schools. Nine times out of ten, you’ll get the same answer: Nuthin. But if you ask if the government has a duty to protect kids from horrific abuse, most people will say yes. And as this week’s news headlines confirm, that contrast leads to our endless confusion about the proper relationship between religious schools, parents, kids, and government.

turpins homeschool abusers

Whatever your religion, you don’t have a right to abuse your kids and call it “homeschooling.”

Exhibit A: The parents in the terrible Turpin case have been sentenced to life imprisonment. You may remember this horror-show case from last year. A family with a dozen kids was caught subjecting the kids to abuse—including starvation, sexual abuse, and neglect—under the guise of “homeschooling.”

Exhibit B: A New York judge has ruled that conservative religious schools do not have to comply with government orders. In this case, the city and state governments have been trying for a while to supervise the curriculum at some private Jewish schools. The accusation was that the religious schools had been teaching students only in Yiddish and Hebrew, neglecting their studies in English and science, and neglecting the education of girls as a whole.

Exhibit C: New York has also threatened to take away religious exemptions for measles vaccines. Lots of Orthodox Jewish families have abstained. Traditionally, they were given lots of wiggle room for religious claims. No longer.

Measles NYC orthodox

…but do parents have a right to teach only in Yiddish? …or to skip vaccines?

What does all of this tell us about the proper relationship between government, family, and private schools? Just this: The dividing line is not really about religion. Rather, it is about abuse. Parents and religious communities generally have lots of leeway when it comes to their kids’ educations.

If and when a kid is being abused, however, or hurt physically, the government tends to feel justified in stepping in. This is true when the harm is done only to the religious kids themselves—as in the case of the Turpins or the Jewish-school students—or to the wider public—as with the unvaccinated students.

The problem, of course, is that “abuse” is often in the eye of the beholder. What the Turpins did to their children was an obvious case. But, as Lawrence Krauss has accused, are ALL young-earth creationists guilty of abusing their kids by teaching them zombie science? Or, remembering the case of NFL legend Adrian Peterson, what about parents and schools who use corporal punishment?

No one knows. We don’t have a clear and universal definition of “abuse” that we can apply in every situation. For secular people like me, the idea of neglecting topics such as English and science seems abusive. It seems to harm the life chances of students. For people like me, too, it seems abusive to teach kids–for religious reasons–that only heterosexuality can be practiced morally.

But there’s the rub. I know that plenty of parents disagree. They want their kids to learn young-earth creationism because they love their kids. They want their kids to learn the (alleged) dangers of LGBTQ sexuality because they love their kids. Can that be abuse?

No one knows.

In the end, the reason it is so hard to build a convincing wall of separation between church, state, and school is not because of Jesus or Jehovah or Jefferson. Rather, it is because no one has a simple, universal definition of “abuse.”

Where Orthodox Meets Hippie

They don’t agree on much. But on this they do agree: MMR vaccines are not good for their kids. In my great home state of New York, Orthodox Jewish groups and rich hippies are uniting on this one issue (sort of). Why? As I’m arguing in my new book about creationism, it’s not really about God or ethics or any of that stuff. It all comes down to Billy Joel.

Here’s what we know: In Rockland County, New York—just northwest of New York City—the government has taken drastic steps to ban unvaccinated children from all public places. A measles outbreak has led to this unusual measure. Traditionally, most states allowed parents pretty wide leeway in religious and moral exemptions to mandatory-vaccination laws. Today’s outbreak is forcing a re-think of those exemptions.

What does it have to do with Orthodox Judaism and hippie culture? In this case, a lot. The unvaccinated children are clustered in private schools, some of them Orthodox Jewish schools and others from a fancy-pants Waldorf school. In general, the cultural worlds of these two schools could not be further apart. In one thing, though, the parents agree, and this one thing is at the root of the measles problem.

From the Orthodox perspective, MMR vaccines have a complicated backstory. Some Orthodox leaders have counseled against vaccinations, but now leaders agree that vaccines are kosher. Parents, though, are still divided. As Forward described, many in the Orthodox community share

a feeling that their worldview is not in keeping with modern secular society, said Samuel Heilman, a Queens College sociology professor who has authored several books about Orthodox Jews.

“It’s about a view that we have our ways and they have their ways,” he said.

When it comes to measles vaccines, many parents in the Orthodox community simply do not trust the experts, and it is that distrust that brings Orthodox and hippies together.

Just down the street from Rockland’s Orthodox schools, but culturally a million miles away, parents at Green Meadow Waldorf School have also attempted to keep their kids from receiving the MMR vaccine. The lesson about distrusting vaccines is the same, but practically every other aspect of these schools is different. Green Meadow, for example, promises that their school will

create a social, cultural, and learning environment that recognizes the child’s spiritual freedom and growth. . . . Rather than teaching to the test or adhering to Common Core standards, the Waldorf curriculum fosters independent, critical thinking and problem solving, develops ethics and morality, and promotes true joy in learning.

The progressive, child-centered world of Green Meadow may be totally different from that of Orthodox schools, but the parents share one fundamental beef. Just like skeptical Orthodox parents, anxious Waldorf parents share a virulent distrust of the medical establishment. They feel it so strongly they are willing to put their children’s health on the line. They probably wouldn’t agree on much else, but they might agree with Billy Joel that it’s always been a matter of trust.

Jesus, Measles, and the Fight against Science

Does Jesus want your children to get measles?

A recent outbreak at a Texas mega-church highlights the tangled connections between faith, schooling, and science.

The fight against evolution gets all the headlines, but as this story shows, the connections between religion, education, and science can get a lot more convoluted.

As journalist Liz Szabo reported in Religion News Service, Eagle Mountain International Church in Newark, Texas, seems to be ground zero for a recent measles outbreak.  Twenty-five people in all have been sickened, fifteen of whom have direct connections to the church.

A visitor to the church from an unnamed country in which measles are common seems to have sparked the mini-demic.  Pastor Terri Parsons has warned of the connections between vaccinations and autism, a connection mainstream scientists have decisively pooh-poohed.  However, Pastor Parsons has also now encouraged members of the EMIC community to get vaccinated against measles.

According to the RNS story, the infected young people are all home-schooled and apparently unvaccinated.

So does Jesus want children to get measles?  Of course not.

But skepticism runs deep among conservative Christians.  In this case, conservatives did not trust mainstream science’s claims that immunizations were a good idea.  Nor did they trust the state board of education enough to agree that all children of a certain age must get the measles vaccine.