Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Teaching the Faith

Some of you may recall last week's reported debate raging in Texas over updating that state's school curriculum. Much to the chagrin of secularists and historians, the final selections chosen by the school board in that state have in part reversed a decades-long trend where schools espouse sometimes-unpleasant historical fact and replaced it with comfortable personal beliefs held by the board in question. This article lays out some of the changes made by the board.

It makes me wonder how, in this day and age, such occurrences are still capable. Certainly one would expect flare-ups like this when discussing the topic of human evolution and how it does not wholly agree with Creationist theory, for that is a debate that is still unsettled. But to remove Thomas Jefferson from a listing of influential citizens of the era, simply because he was a secularist? There are boundaries that really should not be crossed, and this one ranks among them. It's censorship based on personal preference.

But what would the courts say? Though the school boards in this country have a long-standing tradition of voting on upcoming curriculum, such a change as that seen in Texas is so radical that it entered the national eye. To me, this is indicative of controversy, and we all know how the courts tend to take up controversial issues.

This isn't excessive entanglement, however, based on the precedent set for years by school boards. THe Lemon Test is passed. Rather, it strikes me as an abuse of power and position by the conservative members of the board who have forsaken their duty to guide children toward adulthood and replaced it with their own prejudices and ill-formed conceptions. The article quotes a David Bradley, voting member of the school board, as saying “I reject the notion by the left of a constitutional separation of church and state." That's all well and good as an opinion, Mr. Bradley, but - as the article points out - the Establishment Clause has never been repealed. While it's true that the actual phrase "separation of church and state" does not appear in the Constitution, its common-law application goes back through the centuries beginning with Howe. Jefferson endorsed it, as seen in both his Treatise on Religious Freedom and his Danbury Church letter. But because it's unpleasant to the religious members of the board, it is to be censored.

This is not simply a local issue, either. Traditionally Texas has been the trend-setter for school boards across the country. If that state has chosen to reject historical fact in favor of personal biases, one can only hope that other states - regardless of their political or religious persuasion - will not follow the pattern seen in the Lone Star State.


Shannon H. said...

I agree that there is no technical constitutional violation here, though I would say that the Texas school board’s actions have certainly gone against the spirit of the Constitution. Though there is no real case for the Supreme Court to get involved in, I would hope that the “court of public opinion” will speak up and stop the influence this one state has on education across the country. If enough school boards of other states speak up and refuse to use these religiously bowdlerized textbooks, the publishers will have no choice but to publish less religiously motivated versions.

John S. said...

The Texas textbook case along with issues of same-sex marriage pose an interesting question with respect to Establishment. Can you consider motivation or derivation when considering the constitutionality of a law. For example, if one were to essentialize the textbook case, it could be reasonably argued that the intent was to promote a revisionist form of history that presents more clear portrait of a Christian-centered and founded America. If that is so, wouldn't that violate the secular purpose test? Ditto for same-sex marriage. If the primary opposition or motivation stems from a religious prohibition, are we in Establishment territory if we seek to pass laws or rule on an opposition that is religiously motivated? It is likely in this gray area that issues of "tradition" rear their heads. Which raises the question, what tradition do you think you are supporting; typically the answer is essentially a religious one.