I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Campus uproar, SCOTUS deliberations, and a few oddball stories, too. It’s been another whiz-bang week here at ILYBYGTH. In all the fuss, here are some stories we might have missed…

“Like trying to waltz with a wolf:” Jill Lepore in The New Yorker on the history of campus- and NFL free-speech battles.

Things are still weird in Mississippi. Hechinger looks at the ways history textbooks in the Magnolia State still leave out big chunks of uncomfortable history.Bart reading bible

SCOTUS gears up to rule on teachers’ unions. Can non-members really be forced to pay union fees?

Want to play football against the College of the Ozarks? Be sure none of your players take a knee during the national anthem.

Should Virginia Tech fire its alleged white-supremacist teaching assistant? Or is he protected by academic freedom?

Chris Lehmann takes apart the myth that good schools will lead to economic mobility, in The Baffler. HT: D

Why did so many academic historians pooh-pooh Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s new Vietnam War documentary? Jon Zimmerman offers a simple explanation at CHE. HT: NBR

Now they’ve got teachers doing it! Massachusetts substitute kneels during the Pledge of Allegiance. HT: MM

Mick Zais hated the Common Core all the way to the White House.

One liberal college’s attempt to attract conservative students, from Inside Higher Education.

Thanks to all SAGLRROILYBYGTH who sent in stories and tips.

Advertisements

Always Look for the Union Label

It’s back. The US Supreme Court has agreed to hear another teacher-union case. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are painfully aware, the conservative sport of teacher-union-bashing has a long history. The current case will likely redefine the landscape of school unionism.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Commies, unions, and teachers, c. 1938

As I explored in my book about educational conservatism, beginning in the 1930s conservative activists attacked teachers’ unions as dangerous fronts for communist subversion. Conservative patriotic groups exposed the connection of unions to leftist academics such as Harold Rugg. They pushed successfully for loyalty laws to sniff out subversive teachers.

In cities like New York, during the 1940s and 1950s, such union-bashing achieved great political success. Fueled by the testimony of former-communist-turned-witness Bella Dodd, the New York City School Board declared war on communist-affiliated teachers’ unions.

In her 1954 book School of Darkness, Dodd explained that communists actively sought influence—secret influence—in teachers’ unions. They fought for innocuous-sounding perks such as teacher tenure. They screened their subversion, Dodd claimed, by using intentionally misleading labels such as the “Friends of the Free Public Schools.”

In reality, Dodd warned, the Communist Party

establishes such authority over its members that it can swing their emotions now for and now against the same person or issue.

Teachers might be well-meaning folks, Dodd wrote, but at best they served as dupes for mind-controlling communist spies and sneaks. Such warnings carried great political weight. As historian Clarence Taylor has pointed out, by 1955 239 teachers and board personnel had been forced out of New York City schools, accused of subversion.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

From Hearst’s New York Journal-American, July 7, 1948.

No one these days is going to stand in front of SCOTUS and accuse teacher unions of communist subversion. The issue is still one of left-leaning political influence, though. The most recent case before this one, Friedrichs v. California, hoped to give teachers freedom to refuse to pay union dues. In many states, even if they don’t join the union, teachers have to pay a portion of the union’s dues, since the union bargains collectively for all teachers.

Justice Scalia’s death forced that case into a 4-4 deadlock.

Plaintiffs in the new case, Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, hope the new court will give them a decisive win. The plaintiffs are hoping to be allowed to opt out, since, as Rebecca Friedrichs argued in the previous case, union support is “quintessentially political.” Forcing teachers or other workers to pay for political activism, plaintiffs insist, violates their rights.

With Neil Gorsuch filling Justice Scalia’s seat, it’s likely they’ll win. No one’s saying “communist subversion” anymore, but the long legacy of conservative anxiety about teachers’ unions remains politically potent.

SCOTUS Decision: Who’s the Bigot Here?

The script isn’t new. In every culture-war battle these days, both sides like to call each other bigots. The recent landmark SCOTUS ruling is no different. When the Court ruled this week that a church school cannot be prevented from receiving public funds, both sides insisted they are on the side of the anti-bigotry angels. From this historian’s perspective, one side has the much better case. Am I off base?

If you’ve been following the Trinity Lutheran case, you’ve heard all about “Blaine Amendments.” Yesterday, SCOTUS ruled 7-2 that Missouri could not exclude a religious school from receiving public funds for its playground. The school had applied for a grant to re-surface its playground. The state of Missouri, though, rejected the otherwise successful application because its state constitution prohibits funding religious schools, in a clause popularly known as a “Blaine Amendment.”

So far, so good.

The majority in this case fulfilled the dreams of conservatives such as Clarence Thomas. Blaine Amendments, Thomas has long argued, have their roots in anti-Catholic prejudice. As a product of 1870s bigotry, they deserve to be consigned to the scrapheap of historical justice. In his opinion in Mitchell v. Helms (2000), for example, Justice Thomas excoriated such doctrines as “born of bigotry.”

Is he right? The other side insists that the real bigots are the ones who want to erode the goal of a secular government. The true bigots, they’d say, are the folks like Clarence Thomas who hope to chip away at the post-World-War-II SCOTUS consensus that there should be a firm wall of separation between church and state. The ultimate goal of such SCOTUS scheming is to take away the hard-won rights of religious and non-religious minorities, to cram majority Christianity down the throats of Americans of all backgrounds.

Who has the better argument?

On one hand, Justice Thomas isn’t totally wrong. Although savvy historians such as Benjamin Justice of Rutgers have made a good case against him, the Blaine Amendments really do have roots as relics of anti-Catholic populist bigotry.

In his terrific book The Bible, the School, and the Constitution, Steven K. Green describes the context in which the Blaine Amendments took off. From Green’s perspective, Justice Thomas’s argument is far too simplistic. Senator Blaine himself wasn’t an anti-Catholic bigot. His mother was Catholic and he sent his kids to Catholic schools. Moreover, as Green points out, there was not a single “Blaine Amendment” and the supporters of such amendments had a variety of motivations, not just anti-Catholic bigotry.green bible school constitution

However, just because Blaine wasn’t an anti-Catholic bigot, his amendment certainly played to the popular anti-Catholic bigotry of his day, as Green also relates. In the years following the Civil War, the Republican Party used popular anti-Catholic sentiment as a campaign tool. Leaders such as Blaine and Grant inflamed the anti-Catholic prejudices of voters in order to discredit their rivals in the Democratic Party, the traditional political home of Irish Catholics.

Blaine’s proposed Constitutional amendment was at least in part a House-of-Cards-style attempt to inflame anti-Catholic bigotry. According to Green, contemporary newspapers recognized Blaine’s proposal as fueling “the excitement of Protestant fanaticism.” Rallies in support of the Blaine Amendment made no secret of it. They insisted the anti-Catholic measure would guarantee the victory of “the promulgation of the doctrines of true religion” in America.

So, although Justice Thomas distorts the history of the Blaine Amendments by over-emphasizing this bigoted anti-Catholic support, he is not wrong to suggest that supporters often did react out of knee-jerk Protestant chauvinism. Though the Blaine Amendment failed, its language was incorporated in one way or another into several state constitutions, including Missouri’s.

In this historian’s opinion, however, there is a more important flaw lurking in Justice Thomas’s use of the history of Blaine Amendments, due either to surprising ignorance or profound cynicism. If bigotry lurked at the heart of the Blaine Amendment, precisely the same bigotry has fueled a generation of conservative attempts to wedge religion—a certain form of religion—back into America’s public schools. When Justice Thomas fights against Blaine-ist bigotry, he is promoting the very same.

The dangerous, bigoted implication—in Blaine’s day or in ours—is that there is one type of religion that is somehow more American than others. To my mind, this is the big danger in this debate, and it is a danger that has worried conservative religious people as much as secular progressives like myself.

As Robert Daniel Rubin argues in his terrific new book Judicial Review and American Conservatism, since the 1970s religious conservatives have fought against the separation of church and state in order to restore Christianity to its place as America’s de facto religion. As part of this campaign, since the days of Senator Jesse Helms and Justice William Rehnquist, conservatives have pushed to wedge more and more Christian prayer and Bible-reading back into schools.rubin book

Moral-Majority types have always valued the privileges of Christian majorities over the rights of religious (or non-religious) minorities. Justice Rehnquist, for example, thought the primary goal of courts should be to defend the rights of majorities to promulgate their doctrines in public institutions, including public schools. As Rubin puts it (pg. 214), Justice Rehnquist felt

solicitude toward the majority and its capacity to fashion policies embodying its moral and political preferences. To honor dissenters’ rights more jealously than states’ laws was to disgrace the democratic process.

Just like Senator Blaine and Justice Thomas, Justice Rehnquist wouldn’t have called this solicitude “bigotry.” In the end, though, if we have to play the bigotry card, I can’t help but think that Thomas has the weaker case.

Why? The most dangerous, bigoted notion in these cases, IMHO, is the implication that there is a real American religion, that Christianity (or Protestantism, or evangelical Protestantism) have somehow a better claim to government support. In this idea lurks the true and dangerous bigotry in this perennial conflict. It is a bigotry, to be fair, that has been strenuously opposed by plenty of religious conservatives themselves. As we’ve noted in these pages, many conservative evangelicals are horrified by the notion that theirs is somehow a merely “American” religion.

Among conservative evangelicals, however, it has proven difficult to oppose moral-majoritarianism. And so we come to our culture-war battle over the proper role of Christian religion in public schools. One on side, we have conservatives who fight to include Christian sentiment and activity in government-funded activities, including schools. On the other, we have progressives who favor a strict secularity in government funding.

Ideally, we could have these discussions without calling each other bigots. When it comes right down to it, though, if we are going to start flinging mud, the balance seems clear to me: In this case the bigger bigots are those who hope to cram Christianity back into public schools. They ignore the rights of minorities; they insist that their ideas are right for everybody.

Many SAGLRROILYBYGTH will likely disagree. What do YOU think? Is it fair to call pro-Christian activism “bigotry?” Or do Christian groups have a right to legal protection from anti-religious “bigotry” such as the so-called Blaine Amendments?

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Your humble editor has been distracted lately by all the excitement of our New York National History Day competition in scenic Cooperstown, New York. The rest of the world, though, kept on rollin. Here are some of the stories we might have missed…

What does Steve Bannon think of God? Hugh Urban describes Bannon’s theology at Religion & Politics.

Baylor picks its first woman president. Is this a new normal for evangelical higher education?

The latest from the Lutherans: Check out coverage of the Missouri church/school case currently before SCOTUS.

Trinity Lutheran v. Missouri, No.15-577

Can religious schools get ANY public money? How much? …for what?

Can arch-creationist Ken Ham support the March for Science? The answer won’t surprise you.

Will school lunches get fat again? Trump’s pick for the USDA might roll back nutrition guidelines for school meals, from Politico. (Scroll down).

The Coming Split at Conservative Colleges

Is your school for bigots?…Or for apostates? That’s the choice that conservative school leaders have faced throughout the twentieth century. And it is coming round again. As the US Supreme Court hears arguments about same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges, conservative religious schools and colleges should gear up for another divisive debate over equality and theology. If SCOTUS rules in favor of same-sex marriage, will evangelical and fundamentalist schools face a return to the hot tempers of 1971?

More bad news for conservatives...

More bad news for conservatives…

The case itself is a combination of cases from four states. In short, SCOTUS is trying to decide two issues: whether or not the Constitution requires states to allow same-sex marriage; and whether or not same-sex marriages in one state must be recognized by all states.

Conservative Christians have made their feelings clear. Among the hundreds of friend-of-the-court letters are one from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and one from Governor Mike Huckabee’s advocacy group.

At the Christian Post this morning, we see nervous worries about the possible fall-out for conservative Christian schools. Justice Samuel Alito made an explicit reference to the precedent on every conservative’s mind: the Bob Jones University case. Back in 1970, the leaders of BJU refused to allow racial integration on their South Carolina campus. As a result, the Internal Revenue Service took away BJU’s tax-exempt status. By 1983, BJU had taken its case all the way to the Supreme Court. It lost.

Alito asked Solicitor General Donald Verrilli if the precedent would apply:

JUSTICE ALITO:  Well, in the Bob Jones case, the Court held that a college was not entitled to tax­exempt status if it opposed interracial marriage or interracial dating.  So would the same apply to a university or a college if it opposed same­ sex marriage?

GENERAL VERRILLI:  You know, I ­­ I don’t think I can answer that question without knowing more specifics, but it’s certainly going to be an issue. ­ I don’t deny that.  I don’t deny that, Justice Alito.  It is ­­ it is going to be an issue.

Conservatives worry that this might mean the end of religious schools and colleges. Should religious schools refuse to provide housing for same-sex married couples, the federal government could revoke their tax-exempt status. For most schools, that would mean a sudden and impossibly steep tax bill. When schools are already teetering on the brink of financial insolvency, it could certainly mean the end.

But that’s not all. If history is any guide, Christian school leaders should also prepare for another kind of crisis. Back in the 1970s, fundamentalist schools endured a vicious and destructive split over Bob Jones University’s position on racial segregation.

As I’ve been finding in the archives this past year, even schools that agreed with BJU’s fundamentalist theology sometimes disagreed with BJU’s position against interracial marriage. At the Moody Bible Institute, for example, leaders decided to cancel an invitation to pro-BJU fundamentalist leader John R. Rice. The decision subjected MBI’s leaders to withering criticism from fundamentalists nationwide.

Reporters and observers have noted that SCOTUS’s decision in this case might raise questions for leaders of conservative religious schools. Those leaders should also consider another likely outcome. If SCOTUS’s decision puts pressure on school leaders to recognize same-sex marriages, it might lead to another in a long line of bitter fights among schools.

Will conservative evangelicals and Catholics submit to the law of the land? Or will they resist, citing a higher authority? Will conservative schools lose their conservative credibility if they give in to the new cultural ethos?

It’s not going to be an easy choice. If I were the president of a conservative Christian school or college, I’d get myself ready for a lose-lose decision. Do I want my school to be labeled a bunch of fanatical bigots? Or would I prefer to join the ranks of schools that don’t take their religions very seriously?

Can an Atheist Pray in Greece?

The US Supreme Court has agreed to hear a new public-prayer case.  At issue here is whether a town worked hard enough to include religious diversity in its public prayers.

The town of Greece, New York, outside of Rochester, has been accused of favoring Christianity in its pre-meeting prayers.  The Second Court of Appeals ruled in Galloway v. Town of Greece that the town meeting prayers had favored Christianity over other religions.

According to USA Today, the Arizona-based group Alliance Defending Freedom appealed to the US Supreme Court on behalf of the town.

SCOTUS decided in 1983’s Marsh v. Chambers that legislative meetings can be opened with a prayer, as long as that prayer does not favor one religion, denomination, or sect over another.   The Second Court of Appeals explicitly noted that this case does not challenge that precedent.  “We do not hold,” the court wrote, “that the town may not open its public meetings with a prayer or invocation.  Such legislative prayers, as Marsh holds and as we have repeatedly noted, do not violate the Establishment Clause.”

What is at issue here is whether or not Greece worked hard enough to include religious and non-religious diversity in its opening prayers. The original suit, brought by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, charged that the overwhelming majority of the prayers represented Christianity.

The court granted that the town had the intention to represent a proper diversity of religious beliefs, but in practice, most of the prayers implied that Christianity was the town’s religion.  As the court described, a permissible public-prayer policy must be

inclusive of multiple beliefs and makes clear, in public word and gesture, that the prayers offered are presented by a randomly chosen group of volunteers, who do not express an official town religion, and do not purport to speak on behalf of all the town’s residents or to compel their assent to a particular belief….

In other words, it is not enough for a town to allow a diversity of religion in public prayer.  According to the Second Court of Appeals, in any case, public meetings must work harder to dispel the perceptions of a “reasonable objective observer under the totality of the circumstances” that the town tips one way or another.

Will SCOTUS agree?  Or will they rule that it is enough merely to welcome a diversity of belief?

Gay Marriage and School Bathrooms

Will same-sex marriage turn public schools into orgies of sexual confusion?  Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis has connected the dots.

The Supreme Court is wrestling with two cases about same-sex marriage.

Conservatives have long insisted that same-sex marriage would lead to a breakdown in the value of marriage itself.  One commenter recently called same-sex marriage the threshold of an “abyss of nihilism.”

Ham’s analysis sexualizes that nihilism and brings it right into public schools.  Ham, America’s leading young-earth creationist, insists that same-sex marriage is only part of an “evolving sexual agenda.”  (Ham is a smart guy, so I am confident he chose that word—“evolving”—intentionally.)

In Ham’s recent piece, he argues that the next step after gay marriage will be a profound and aggressive attack on all traditional gender norms.  As evidence, he cites recent public-school guidelines in Massachusetts.  As we’ve noted on ILYBYGTH, these new school rules allow students to identify their own gender identity and require schools to respect those identifications.

As Ham writes, the trickiest part of this school rule has become bathrooms.  If a student was born a boy but identifies as a girl, Massachusetts schools must respect that choice. Ham worries about a boy who pretends to identify as a girl just to get access to the girls’ locker room.

Ham is not the first conservative thinker to make this connection between same-sex marriage and a sexual free-for-all in public schools.  But for those of us non-conservatives who try to understand conservatism in American education, Ham’s argument offers two important reminders.  First, schools are tied into every culture-war argument.  Though marriage laws seem relatively distant from education policy, conservative (and liberal) arguments against same-sex marriage often rely on the harmful effects gay marriage will have on children and schooling.  Second, for those outside the orbit of American creationism, Ham’s argument underscores the fact that creationism is an outgrowth of conservative Christianity, not the root.  Besides Ham’s use of the word “evolving” to damn the same-sex marriage “agenda,” this article does not talk about creationism or evolution.  Rather, Ham concludes that the main reason to oppose same-sex marriage and the abandonment of gender rules is more broadly Christian.  As Ham argues,

As Christians, we should affirm our children’s God-given genders and cultivate godly masculinity and femininity in them, rather than encouraging them to abandon the gender God gave them in the womb . . .

For Ham, as for many creationists, Christianity comes first.  Creationism is only one important element of the crusade.  Ham himself has often reminded readers of this fact.  Nevertheless, it is common for outsiders like me to pigeonhole Answers in Genesis as narrowly interested in establishing the case for a young earth.

As Ham’s recent argument proves, AiG’s sort of young-earth creationism has a much broader conservative agenda.

 

School Shooting? Blame the Supreme Court

Is the US Supreme Court responsible for the recent horrific shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut?

That is the implication made by Mike Huckabee, conservative radio personality, former Governor of Arkansas, and occasional presidential candidate.  Huckabee told Fox News that school violence could be prevented by letting God back into public schools.

Asked by reporter Neil Cavuto how God could allow such a tragedy, Huckabee responded,

“We ask why there’s violence in our schools, but we have systematically removed God from our schools. Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage? Because we’ve made it a place where we don’t want to talk about eternity, life, what responsibility means, accountability. That we’re not just going to have to be accountable to the police if they catch us, but one day we stand before a holy God in judgment. If we don’t believe that, then we don’t fear that. . . . Maybe we ought to let (God) in on the front end and we wouldn’t have to call him to show up when it’s all said and done at the back end.”

As I argued recently in an article in the Journal of Religious History, this argument has been a standard theme among conservative evangelical Protestants since SCOTUS’ 1963 Schempp decision.  The journal is subscription-only, but the essence of my argument is as follows:

many religious Americans, far beyond the ranks of evangelical Protestants, concluded that the Court had kicked God out of public schools.  Unlike other religious Americans, however, evangelicals had long had special influence over public education.  These Court decisions had a unique impact on evangelical attitudes because evangelicals had harbored an implicit trust in their own unique role in public education.  When the Supreme Court ruled that evangelical staples such as recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and reading from the Bible could no longer be performed in public schools, it forced evangelicals to an unexpected grappling with their wider relationship to American society.  Not only did the Court decisions kick God out of public schools, in other words, but it effectively kicked evangelicals out of the American mainstream.  

            As a result, evangelicals shifted from feeling part of a politically invulnerable religious majority to feeling themselves part of a put-upon minority. This dramatic and relatively sudden change in evangelical sentiment had important results.  For decades, politicians and politically minded preachers attracted evangelical support by articulating these new minority sentiments.  Jerry Falwell, for example, organized the significantly named Moral Majority as an effort to represent the values of conservative Fundamentalists, whom Falwell called “the largest minority bloc in the United States.”[i]  Similarly, in a stump speech in early 1984, Ronald Reagan played to the sensibilities of evangelical voters when he condemned “God’s expulsion” from public schools.[ii] 

Could a more robust religious curriculum in America’s public schools have deterred the school shooter in this case?  That does not seem to fit the facts.  However, Governor Huckabee has articulated a notion that remains very common among some religious conservatives: Schools cannot teach without religion.


[i] George Vecsey, “Militant Television Preachers Try to Weld Fundamentalist Christians’ Political Power,” New York Times, January 21, 1980, A21.

[ii] Quoted in Catherine A. Lugg, For God and Country: Conservatism and American School Policy (New York: Peter Lang, 2000), 159.

“If You’re Planning to Have Sex…”

What should schools be teaching America’s young people about sex?  This is a question that has snarled culture-war arguments about public education for decades.  Sex ed proponents often insist that they can teach a morally neutral approach—just the facts.  This attitude is ridiculously oversimplified.  There is and can be no morally neutral approach to a subject that is so intimately wrapped up in religion and ethics.

Let me be clear at the outset: I personally believe public schools should teach a comprehensive curriculum in sexuality that includes discussions about both the mechanics and morals of sex.  But the common argument that sex ed can be done in a morally neutral fashion relies on a woefully naïve self-understanding.

This liberal tradition begins with a powerful argument in favor of public-school sex ed.  Many sex ed proponents make the strong case that sex is a potentially deadly game.  Since kids are going to do it, they need information to stay safe and avoid unintentional pregnancies.  With the prevalence of HIV and possible pregnancy, the argument goes, this is literally a life-or-death situation.  Refusing to educate young people about sex in a frank and open manner would be a nearly criminal malfeasance on the part of responsible public-school educators.  Yet due to dunderheaded conservative opposition, many sex educators feel, this vital information is often censored.

Perhaps the most famous example of this position was the beleaguered Mary Calderone.  As historian Jeff Moran described in Teaching Sex: The Shaping of Adolescence in the 20th Century, Calderone headed SIECUS, the Sex (later Sexuality) Information and Education Council of the United States beginning in 1963.  The stated goal of the organization, in gendered 1960s language, was “to establish man’s sexuality as a health entity.”  Calderone wanted sex to be understood as a positive thing.  “We must block our habit of considering sex as a ‘problem’ to be ‘controlled’,” she wrote in 1963.  Rather, Calderone argued, “Emphasis must be on sex as a vital life force to be utilized.”  In spite of the reputation Calderone gained as a wild-eyed sex maniac, Calderone remained relatively old fashioned.  She believed sex ed should encourage the ultimate goal of healthy marriages, for instance.  The SIECUS plan insisted it took a “moral-neutrality” approach.  It promised to deluge students with information, not preaching, about sex and sexuality.

Like that of SIECUS in the 1960s, the rationale of sex-ed advocates in subsequent decades has often gone as follows: sex educators in public schools do not encourage young people to have sex.  They merely suggest that if students are going to have sex, they must have the knowledge to do it safely.

For instance, as Laura Sessions Stepp has argued in recent days about a New York City program to provide the “morning after” pill to public-school students without parental consent, merely making information and even contraception available to young people does not encourage sex.

Whatever scientific evidence may suggest, however, proponents of sex ed in public schools often utterly misunderstand the thinking of religious conservatives.  It is difficult for those of us who support public-school sex ed to wrap our minds around the conservative position.  But if we are going to have respectful, productive discussions about sex ed, we must make the effort.

In short, for many religious conservatives, sex ed can never be a neutral message.  Having an adult, perhaps a teacher, stand in front of a group of young people and say, “If you’re going to have sex, here are some ways to do it safely,” suggests that having sex is a legitimate and respectable option for young people.  It encourages young people, some religious conservatives think, to think of themselves as people who might be having sex.

How can we make sense of this conservative position?  We might start with a few analogies.
For example, imagine a parallel situation in Family and Consumer Science, the class formerly known as Home Ec.  Imagine a teacher planned to inform students about the importance of kitchen hygiene.  “If you’re planning on making a ham-and-cheese sandwich,” the teacher might say, “here are some ways to do it safely.”

It is not difficult for us to imagine that a student from a Jewish background might not want to make a ham-and-cheese.  And, with our understanding of the goals and nature of public education, we can agree that such a student should never be forced to make a sandwich that breaks his or her religious rules.  Such a student could make something else.  Or he could be exempted from the class.  No big deal.  Simply because we do not share the student’s understanding of what may be offensive, we do not force the student to abandon that understanding.

In cases such as this, we should remember the words of former Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court Warren Burger.  In Thomas v. Review Board (1981), Chief Justice Burger argued that those who are not compelled by religious rules are not the ones who should decide whether or not those rules are reasonable.  “It is not for us to say,” Burger argued, “that the line [Thomas] drew was an unreasonable one.”

Granted, the case was not about public schools, or sex ed, but the principle remains important.  It is not the role of those who are not offended to declare whether or not certain ideas are offensive.

Perhaps another way to understand this case might be to imagine some permutations.  Consider, for example, how we would feel if a teacher told a class, “Now class, if you’re thinking about killing someone, here are some ways to do it safely.”  Clearly, when we agree that behaviors are beyond the bounds of morality, we agree that public-school teachers ought not be suggesting safe ways for students to engage in them.

That may be the position of religious conservatives.  If an action is entirely beyond the bounds of morality, the notion that young people need to be taught how to do it safely makes utterly no sense.  Simply broaching the topic implies that sex would be a legitimate choice for young people, a position their religion explicitly forbids.

So how can public schools provide information without offending conservative religious families?  It will make a start to understand the complaints of conservative parents as legitimate.  Just as we would not question a Jewish student’s aversion to making a ham-and-cheese, so we should not attack a religious student’s aversion to hearing about safer ways to have sex.  For many sex-ed liberals, myself included, this is a difficult pill to swallow.  It feels as if we are allowing some families to stick their heads in the sand, to restrict their children from hearing vitally important safety information.  Nevertheless, if we honestly respect the home cultures of students from conservative homes, we must allow them to draw the lines between offensive and acceptable.  We can never insist that our understanding of “morally neutral” must be accepted by those who disagree.