Submitted by Elaine Magliaro, Guest Blogger
As a former public school educator, I have been following what has been going on with school reform in this country. I have written posts about some of the groups and individuals involved in the current reform movement (here), the push to privatize public schools (here), school vouchers (here and here), and charter schools (here and here). Despite all the research that I’ve done on the subject, I hadn’t been aware until recently that there are many publicly funded charter schools across this country that have religious affiliations.
In December 2011, Tiffany Gee Lewis (Deseret News) wrote that there had been a “veritable explosion of charter schools over the past two decades.” She noted that a number of the schools that were riding this charter trend were “founded or authorized” by religious and cultural organizations. As she said, the subject of religion in public schools “has always been a hot-button topic.” She added that “the rise of charter schools that tie themselves to a certain ethnic or religious group introduces a new shade of complication to public schooling.”
According to Jessica Meyers of The Dallas Morning News, “Church-charter partnerships are springing up across the country as private institutions lose funding and nontraditional education models grow in popularity. Their emergence prompts questions about the role religious groups should play in the development of publicly funded schools.” She added, “Critics fear the fuzzy division means taxpayers are footing the bill for religious instruction.”
Meyer wrote the following with regard to charter schools in the state of Texas:
Charter schools are public schools run by private groups and approved by the State Board of Education. They are freed of many state rules. But they must adhere to the state’s accountability tests and maintain a separation of church and state. Religious groups may apply to open a charter school if they establish a separate nonprofit to receive state funds.
Even with a middleman, heavy overlap exists between the school and the religious group that supports it. Dozens of Texas charter school leaders or board members hold prominent positions in the church, where the schooling sometimes takes place. Parochial schools reinvent themselves as charters, often with little guidance on running a public school. And the mission of the school itself typically stems from the values of the religious group.
These close ties stir concern that churches will use state funds to bolster their coffers. In Houston, the Rev. Harold Wilcox and several church members were indicted six years ago for embezzling federal and state funds through Prepared Table Charter School. Wilcox paid himself a $210,000 annual salary to run the school and received $68,000 in rent for classes held in his Baptist church sanctuary.
Morgan Smith reported in The New York Times this past August that auditors for the Texas Education Agency had found that state money had been used inappropriately in some cases where charter schools were housed in churches. The agency discovered that the superintendent of a charter school in San Antonio “had used school funds to buy a former church.” The superintendent then “leased that building to the school she led.” Jack Ammons, who spent fifteen years auditing public schools across Texas as a monitor for the education agency, “said he found it was ‘nearly impossible’ for charter schools operating out of church facilities to avoid spending state funds on students in ways that also benefited the church.”
The majority of charter schools with religious ties are run by right-wing evangelical Christians—but, as Susan Jacoby wrote in The Washington Post, “…Catholics, Jews and Muslims are also getting a piece of the action.” (You can add Scientologists into the mix, too.) Meyers reported that Houston’s Harmony Public Schools “are run by Turkish Muslims who embody the philosophies of a popular imam.” She also noted that “Students at Ben Gamla Charter School in Florida eat kosher food in the cafeteria and learn Hebrew.”
Tiffany Gee Lewis:
Money largely explains why religious organizations get involved in the charter school movement because it allows them to establish a school that teaches the culture of their beliefs without the financial overhead of a private school. The most drastic example of this was in 2008, when the Archbishop Donald Wuerl converted a number of failing Catholic private schools into charter schools in Washington, D.C.
Dan Quinn, communications director for the advocacy group Texas Freedom Network, also spoke of the recent trend of religious schools “converting to charter schools.” He added that the process is legal but raises questions “about how students get accepted into the school and if there is follow-up from the state.”
Morgan Smith said that some educators—as well as other people—are questioning “whether the schools receive the proper oversight to ensure that religious groups are not benefiting from taxpayer dollars intended for public school students — or that faith-based instruction is not entering those classrooms.” According to Smith, many charter schools that are partnered with religious institutions “have cropped up in cities across Texas since the charter school system was established in 1995.” In fact, 16 of the 23 charter contracts that have been awarded by the state in the past three years have gone to schools with religious ties.
Writing for The Washington Post in 2010, Susan Jacoby said that “charter school promoters with specific religious and cultural agendas around the country are using every possible means to skirt the First Amendment and obtain public support for private aims.”
In November 2010, Jessica Meyers wrote a newspaper article about Advantage Academy in Duncanville, Texas. She said the students at this school “follow biblical principles, talk openly about faith and receive guidance from a gregarious former pastor who still preaches when he speaks.” She said Advantage Academy is typical of the “latest breed of charter schools”—those “born from faith-based principles and taxpayer funds.” She added, “Advantage markets its teaching of creationism and intelligent design. It offers a Bible class as an elective and encourages personal growth through hard work and ‘faith in God and country.’”
The academy’s founder Allen Beck is a former pastor for Assemblies of God who “hopes to instill morals and ethics in students as they learn to count and read.” Beck was quoted as saying, “America is in a battle between secularity and biblical thinking. I want to fuse the two together in a legal way.”
In his Salon article titled Darwin Inspired Hitler: Lies They Teach in Texas, Jonny Scaramanga tells the story of an engineer named Joshua Bass whose son attended iSchool High, a Houston charter school. Bass and his wife had hoped their son would receive a good college prep education at iSchool High. They were taken aback one day when their son returned home after school with “anti-science” books that were “apparently religiously motivated.” One book implied that Darwin’s theory of evolution had inspired Hitler’s plan to eliminate certain groups of people:
[Hitler] has written that the Aryan (German) race would be the leader in all human progress. To accomplish that goal, all “lower races” should either be enslaved or eliminated. Apparently the theory of evolution and its “survival of the fittest” philosophy had taken root in Hitler’s warped mind.
Scaramanga wrote that “attacks on science in the classroom were unacceptable” to Joshua Bass. Bass decided to investigate ResponsiveEd, the curriculum that was used at iSchool High. He discovered that “ResponsiveEd was founded by Donald R. Howard, former owner of ACE (Accelerated Christian Education). ACE is a fundamentalist curriculum that teaches young-Earth creationism as fact.”
ResponsiveEd is the latest in a long line of concerns raised over the religious affiliations of charter schools. Civil libertarians have raised concerns over Jewish schools converting to charter status. In 2010, more than 20 percent of Texas charter schools reportedly had a religious affiliation. And ResponsiveEd aims to expand further.
Imagine that—more than 20% of the charter schools in the Lone Star State have some form of religious ties.
Tax payer funding of charter schools with religious affiliations doesn’t sit well with everyone. According to Don Byrd (Baptist Joint Committee), “these publicly funded institutions are raising significant church-state challenges, both for the religious organization and the state trying to administer oversight.”
Shekinah Learning Institute
“Dr.” Cheryl A. Washington is the superintendent and founder of Shekinah Learning Institute, a group of thirteen charter schools in Texas “that receive $17 million in taxpayer dollars to educate 2,500 ‘at risk’ students.” In a radio interview with Rhema Gospel Express one day, Washington said, “I know it’s part of my nature to bust a move and take a risk. So what’s in me, when it’s imparted into the youth that I serve, then they become those future entrepreneurs that will not be afraid to take a risk…and know that they can do all things through Christ.” During the same interview, Washington said that operating the schools was a “divine assignment.” According to the San Antonio Current, Washington has claimed that God “has given [her] the jurisdiction to operate with dominion.”
In 2012, Americans United accused Washington of “violating the separation of church and state by secretly funneling religion into public classrooms.” Americans United alleged the institute’s Truth Campus in Dallas had instructed students to bring a Bible and notepad to school and that it “operates as if it were a publicly funded religious institution.”
In Showdown At Shekinah: A Church, A Charter School And Church-State Chicanery (June 2012), Simon Brown of Americans United wrote the following about Truth Campus:
Evidence gathered as of press time indicated that the school promoted weekly chapel services, offered weekly Bible study classes and used a religious name and logo, all of which could be violations of the Constitution’s First Amendment.
In Feb. 27 letters to Washington and the Texas Education Agency, Americans United Senior Litigation Counsel Gregory M. Lipper detailed the constitutionally problematic behavior and demanded that these activities stop.
On the Truth Campus’s website, Lipper notes, the organization said it is a public school that is “100% funded by the state of Texas.” Yet Americans United found that the school offers an optional weekly chapel service for its students. A promotional video on the website featured parents explaining how the chapel services teach students “about all the wonderful things that God is doing for them in their lives.” (The Truth Campus website has since been removed from the Internet.)
Note: A WOAI investigation discovered that two doctorate degrees touted by Washington are fakes. “When asked by WOAI in a TV interview why she still chose to use the doctorate title, Washington replied ‘Why not?’”
Life Force Arts and Technology Academy in Florida
Life Force Arts and Technology Academy is a charter school located in Dunedin, Florida. The school, which was established in 2009, receives about $800,000 in public funding annually. Life Force is run by a small Clearwater company called Art of Management, which was “hired to reorganize the school as it filed for bankruptcy.” Hanan Islam, the company president, is also executive director of World Literacy Crusade—an organization that promotes Scientology study methods. When Islam’s company assumed control of operations at Life Force, she assured parents that her group would “not push any religion” at the school.
Some parents of students who attend the school—as well as some former teachers—feel betrayed. They claim that the school “has become a Scientology recruiting post targeting children.” The charter school, which serves low-income students, had advertised its classes in computer and modern dance—but at some point began pushing L. Ron Hubbard’s “study technology.” Critics of the school call the study technology “a Trojan horse Scientology uses to infiltrate public classrooms.” In 2011, students at the school attended a Christmas party at a Scientology church “where they were given Scientology books and DVDs.”
Drew Harwell (Tampa Bay Times—February 26, 2012) wrote that “while Life Force students and teachers worked in poorly stocked classrooms and teachers went unpaid, the bankrupt school funneled tens of thousands of dollars more to Islam’s business interests than she told the bankruptcy court she would charge.”
Tampa Bay Times:
“There can be no accountability when this kind of stuff goes on,” said teacher Tim Roach, who said he was fired from Life Force last month after criticizing the school. “It’s the students who are going to suffer.”
Though mixing public education with religious doctrine is not allowed by the Pinellas County School District, which oversees charter schools, the district has been stymied in attempts to close Life Force because it is under bankruptcy protection.
Ben Gamla Schools in Florida
Peter Deutsch is a former six-term Democratic congressman from Florida. Deutsch, an Orthodox Jew and current resident of Israel, is the founder of and the “driving force” behind the Ben Gamla Hebrew-language charter schools whose curriculum “includes Israel education and Jewish history.” Most of the schools are located on Jewish community campuses. “Supplementary after-school religious programs take place onsite or nearby.” Approximately 85 percent of the schools’ students are Jewish.
In a Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) article titled Jewish public schools? Hebrew charter franchises offer radically different models, author Uriel Heliman wrote the following:
Most of the Ben Gamla schools are purposely situated on Jewish federation campuses. The Boynton Beach school is located on the second floor of a synagogue. The Ben Gamla high school in Plantation recently hired an Orthodox rabbi, Chaim Albert, as its principal.
The Ben Gamla schools are now under investigation because of a statement made by Deutsch in an interview with Uriel Heilman for JTA this past July. During the interview, Deutsch indicated that tax payer money that funds Ben Gamla schools is being used “mostly to benefit the local Jewish community.” Heilman said that the former US congressman hopes the schools will help give “Jewish kids who otherwise would attend public school an opportunity to be in a Jewish environment and develop a Jewish identity — at taxpayer expense.”
Heilman wrote that Deutsch was “unabashed about using public money to support what he describes as Jewish identity-building.” He added that Deutsch told him that 80% of Ben Gamla’s collective budget of $10 million “serves Jewish communal purposes.”
From the Miami Herald (10/28/13):
… Deutsch’s Ben Gamla schools have racked up hefty public funding — more than $10 million for nearly 1,800 students last school year alone.
In Broward, where the English-Hebrew charter schools have stirred the most controversy, Ben Gamla raked in $7.2 million from the state for five charter schools that operate at two sites, in Hollywood and Plantation. Those schools served more than 1,200 students.
A Ben Gamla school in the Kendall area of Miami-Dade received approximately $1.4 million from the state for 241 students last school year. Another Ben Gamla charter school in Palm Beach County received $1.7 million in state funds for 280 students.
According to Americans United, this isn’t the first time that Ben Gamla schools “have faced scrutiny for church-state concerns.” Last year, after visiting the schools, Jewish Week reported, “When it comes to church-state separation, these schools adhere strictly to the letter of the law. However, they arguably push as close to the border of what’s allowable as possible, and some of their practices might raise a few eyebrows.”
Minnesota Charter School Sued by ACLU
In January 2009, ACLU of Minnesota filed a lawsuit against Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (TiZA), a charter school that emphasizes the culture of the Middle East, and the Minnesota Department of Education. The ACLU argued that the school, which is supported by tax funds from the State of Minnesota and the federal government, had “repeatedly violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution by using taxpayer money to illegally promote religion.” A federal district court in the state ruled that the ACLU had standing to challenge TiZA.
ACLU of Minnesota released hundreds of documents in its case against TiZA, which is now closed, in October of 2011. At that time, Chuck Samuelson—the ACLU-MN director—said, “There is an overwhelming amount of documented evidence — by people who testified under oath in here — that these facts are as we have alleged they were.” Samuelson claimed the released documents “vindicate what his organization has been saying all along, namely that TiZA ‘illegally transferred money to its religious landlords, promoted Islam through its Arabic curriculum and its connection to the after-school religious program, and used taxpayer funds in excess of $1 million to renovate buildings to the benefit of their religious landlords.’”
According to Americans United, the legal dispute over the role of Islam in the school has been partially settled. “Under the terms of the settlement, education officials in Minnesota have agreed to more closely monitor charter schools to make certain they are not promoting religion. In addition, Islamic Relief, the organization that sponsored the school, has agreed to pay the ACLU more than $260,000 in attorneys’ fees.”
“I think the ACLU wants other [charter school] sponsors to know that sponsoring a religious school can be an expensive proposition,” said Peter Lancaster, an attorney who had worked on the case for ACLU.
What are your thoughts on tax payer money being used to fund public charter schools with religious affiliations?
Darwin Inspired Hitler: Lies They Teach in Texas (Salon)
Religious Charter Schools Try Balancing Act in Texas (Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty)
Court Grants Standing in Challenge to Minnesota Charter School (Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty)
Charter schools with ties to religious groups raise fears about state funds’ use (Dallas News)
Funds misuse, nepotism feared at Texas charter schools (Dallas News)
Church, state, school: Texas charters with religious ties (Houston Chronicle)
Trying to Keep Religion Out of the Charter School Classroom (The Texas Tribune/NY Times)
When Charter Schools Are in Churches, Conflict Is in the Air (New York Times)
Texas Charter Schools Allegedly Funneling Religion Into Lessons (TPM Muckraker)
Showdown At Shekinah: A Church, A Charter School And Church-State Chicanery (Americans United)
Lawsuit Over Islamic Charter School In Minn. Reaches Partial Settlement (Americans United)
Charter For Controversy: Often Touted As A Breakthrough In ‘Educational Choice,’ Charter Schools Instead Are Raising Church-State Problems Around The Country (Americans United)
One of every five Texas charter schools has religious ties (Journal Sentinel)
Public Charter School or Public Christian School? (Texas Freedom Network)
Turkish charter schools growing as some question cleric ties (Boston Globe)
ACLU of Minnesota v. TiZA, et al. (ACLU)
Religion A Big Part Of The Charter School Debate (NPR)
Cheryl Washington, Texas Shekinah Learning Institute Charter Founder, Teaches Religion In School, Americans United Alleges (Huffington Post)
Church-state watchdog claims local taxpayer-funded charter school more parochial than public (San Antonio Current)
Controversy over Scientology influence clouds future of Pinellas charter school (Tampa Bay Times)
Charter school dangers on display in Scientology case (Tampa Bay Times)
Many charter schools continue to defy church-state separation (Washington Post)
Can religion, charter schools coexist?: Number of ‘religious charter schools’ continues to grow — along with criticism (Deseret News)
ACLU releases hundreds of documents in TiZA case (Minnesota Public Radio)
Largest charter network in U.S.: Schools tied to Turkey (Washington Post)
Charter Schools Tied to Turkey Grow in Texas (New York Times)
Church-State Separation Issue at Hollywood’s Ben Gamla Charter School Revived After Comments by Founder (NBC Miami)
After career in Congress, Peter Deutsch finds new life in Israel (Jewish Telegraphic Agency/JTA)
Jewish public schools? Hebrew charter franchises offer radically different models (Jewish Telegraphic Agency/JTA)
Ben Gamla charter schools take in millions in public funds as founder lives half a world away (Miami Herald)
Hollywood Board to Review if Ben Gamla Charter School Violates Separation of Church and State (Broward Palm Beach)
Fla. Hebrew Charter School Under Investigation For Church-State Violations (Americans United)
59 thoughts on “Regarding the Separation of Church and the State’s Money: Charter Schools with Religious Affiliations Being Publicly Funded”
My brother suggested I would possibly like this web site.
He was once entirely right. This post actually made my day.
You can not consider just how much time I had spent for this information! Thanks!
Thorough and excellent work, Elaine. I don’t think people appreciate the dangers posed by public funding of religious schools, or what is really at stake here.
It is interesting that there was certainly not widespread support for such programs when Catholic parochial schools dominated the market. Anyone familiar with the phrase “Blaine amendment”? I remember as a child hearing my father joke that the reason Cardinal Spellman was such a powerful figure in New York was that if he were to shut down the parochial schools in the archdiocese, the New York public school system would collapse from the weight of tens of thousands of additional students.
Aside from education reformers, the movement has been pushed in the south because it provides a fresh source of funding for all of the private segregated “academies” that blossomed in the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education. It is also popular with Christian dominionists who believe that public funding of Christian schools is entirely appropriate under the First Amendment. (You will recall that Michele Bachmann began her career promoting home schooling in Minnesota.) And, needless to say, it has attracted entrepreneurs who know nothing about education, but can smell free money at a hundred paces.
I should add the following in response to some of the critical comments your piece attracted:
1. One need not be a hater of religion to conscientiously object to public funding of religious schools. One need only believe in the Constitution.
2. The Establishment Clause prohibition against tax support of a particular religious ideology is not avoided by throwing tax dollars at all religious ideologies.
3. The curricula at publicly funded religious schools has not received sufficient scrutiny. Many of the new charter schools in Florida, for example, utilize the fundamentalist A Beka curriculum.
4. The argument that because believers pay taxes, they ought to be able to get some of that money back is specious. When I sent my kids to private schools, I did not expect that I should not have to pay my share of taxes to support the public school system. My kids have been out of school for years now, but I still pay school taxes each year. Is that fair? Of course it is, if one recognizes the importance of education to society as a whole. Besides, religious schools and institutions in this country are already subsidized to the extent of billions of dollars in property taxes and income taxes which they are not required to pay.
“The First Amendment says nothing about ‘separation of church and state’ or a ‘wall of separation between church and state.’ Where did this idea come from? Is it really part of the law?”
This is one of my pet peeves. People state the idea of separation of church and state does not exist. They ask where does it say that in the constitution.
Well first of all the Supreme Court had time after time after time ruled that the constitution does say that there is a separation of church and state. The ACLU have a different interpretation of the constitution but guess whose interpretation is considered accurate by the constitution itself?
Where does it say that there is a separation of church and state? The same place that says that flag burning is protected as free speech, that you can wear a t-shirt that ridicules the government or any a million other forms of “expression” which is now interpreted to fall under free speech.
It was the school reformers who brought us charter schools, vouchers, and the mania for the increasing use of standardized testing of children.
My wife, a public school teacher of almost 30 years, says the federal government is usurping local control through standards and with money.
She says the public school system in our area is a mess. She is nowhere near me on the political spectrum, she is probably just a hair shy to the left of center on most issues or center.
“But education is a monopoly run by the state [as are all monopolies] and there is a lot of worry about giving up that power. I really cant understand why the reluctance to spread the wealth around so to speak.”
There are fifty states and thousands of local school districts. In my state–as in many other states–residents vote for individuals who serve on their districts’ school boards. Local school boards make decisions about most issues regarding their districts. While our local school districts must comply with educational frameworks set by our state, each district can decide which textbooks and educational materials/programs that they use to teach what is required. We don’t have state-wide adoption of textbooks–which is also true of many other states.
The federal government “funded” education through land grants to the states — initially it was one section per township (#16) then increased to two (16, 36) and finally four (16, 36, 2, 32) for several states
Here’s an interesting article on charter schools that I just found this morning:
The charter-school lie: Market-based education gambles with our children
New proof that vouchers and charter schools don’t reform education, just subject it to the whims of businessmen
Just 10 days into a new academic year, classes were abruptly over at one North Carolina charter school this year.
In September, parents who had enrolled their children in Kinston Charter Academy received a letter from the principal directing them to take their children someplace else.
According to a local news report, a mere two days prior to those letters being received, the local board met in an emergency session to close the school after “low performance and disciplinary challenges made the enrollment numbers dwindle.”
Said one dismayed parent, “I feel like we should have got more notice. If they was going to close the school, they should’ve gone ahead and let us know that before we enrolled the kids.”
Meanwhile, folks at the North Carolina Justice Center are wondering what the school did with the $666,818 in state education funding it received in July that was supposed to last through October. The school had actually been overfunded for 366 students, but only 230 students enrolled.
Hundreds of miles away in Philadelphia, parents received a similar notice, this time not by a letter from the principal but from a notice on a website. Due to “safety concerns and financial instability,” Solomon Charter School was abruptly closed to its 330 students.
The school, a cyber charter that was supposed to deliver instruction over the Internet, also demanded parents return computer equipment to the school.
“I was just trying to get him a good education,” said one parent, “and now I don’t know where he will go.”
“No type of warning,” said another. “We bring our kids to school Monday; they say the school is shut down… it’s closing for good, so what are we to do?”
In the meantime, according to news reports, state officials are wondering why a school that was required by law to hold classes online was holding classes in an unsafe building instead – oh, and in a building that happened to also house a clinic for sexual and pornography offenders.
“Another charter school has closed,” began a recent article in a Florida paper, leaving 60 students in the lurch – only this time without bothering to tell district officials beforehand.
In Ohio, at least 15 charter schools have abruptly closed this year – most don’t even bother to list a reason.
In Detroit, a city wracked by debt and bankruptcy, officials scrambled to close a failed charter school by Oct. 31 this year, due to the school’s debts, which exceeded $400,000.
According to The Washington Post, Washington, D.C., spent over $1 million on closing failed charter schools from 2008-2012.
More cities are following the lead of districts like Chicago, where the largest shutdown of public schools in the nation’s history occurred at the very same time that new private charter schools were being expanded by the district.
Abruptly opening and closing schools – leaving school children, parents and communities in the lurch and taxpayers holding the bag – is not a matter of happenstance. It’s by design.
The design in mind, of course, is being called a “market.” Parents and taxpayers who used to rely on having public schools as anchor institutions in their communities – much like they rely on fire and police stations, parks and rec centers, and the town hall – are being told that the education of children is now subject to the whims of “the market.”
I was in Berlin shortly before the Wall came down. To put a Wall on a pedestal, as in the separation of church and state matrix, is a bit lame. But. Giving public money to a religion makes the religion an arm of the state. Better to cut off an arm than to build a Wall. When the Wall comes down you have all those Stasi astardBays fleeing into West Germany to avoid their victims. Same with the nuns armed with their rulers. If you were to get a roomful of catholic grade school kids from the school near where I grew up as a dog and asked them how much they learned at the hands of the nuns with the rulers they will be tough on the cat o lic approach. Of course very few of those kids ever made it into college. When the Wall came down they were in the Army.
Jefferson was for an educated populace. I am pretty sure I have read that some of the founders would have been in favor of using tax money for public education.
But education is a monopoly run by the state [as are all monopolies] and there is a lot of worry about giving up that power. I really cant understand why the reluctance to spread the wealth around so to speak.
Your comment borders on the comical.
Your comment borders on the comical.”
Glad I brought the beginnings of a smile to your lips. 🙂
the public education system is being taken over by the feds and tested into oblivion.
Vouchers are the least of their worries.
That is how I read that letter, it was more saying that government will protect religious freedom rather than do away with it.
The wall Jefferson spoke about was to keep government out of religion. Although the founders did not want a state religion based on the Church in England. They certainly were not anti-religion.
I am guessing the idea of preventing a religious scene in the public square would be considered, by the founders, to be an abridgement of rights by government.
Just for fun
Thanks to all your hard work I’m able to keep abreast of this matter and address it intelligently when talking with others. I am amazed at the number of people who don’t understand what’s happening to their public education system.
From the First Amendment Center:
Frequently Asked Questions–Religion
The First Amendment says nothing about ‘separation of church and state’ or a ‘wall of separation between church and state.’ Where did this idea come from? Is it really part of the law?
Although the words ‘separation of church and state’ do not appear in the First Amendment, the establishment clause was intended to separate church from state. When the First Amendment was adopted in 1791, the establishment clause applied only to the federal government, prohibiting the federal government from any involvement in religion. By 1833, all states had disestablished religion from government, providing protections for religious liberty in state constitutions. In the 20th century, the U.S. Supreme Court applied the establishment clause to the states through the 14th Amendment. Today, the establishment clause prohibits all levels of government from either advancing or inhibiting religion.
The establishment clause separates church from state, but not religion from politics or public life. Individual citizens are free to bring their religious convictions into the public arena. But the government is prohibited from favoring one religious view over another or even favoring religion over non-religion.
Our nation’s founders disagreed about the exact meaning of “no establishment” under the First Amendment; the argument continues to this day. But there was and is widespread agreement that preventing government from interfering with religion is an essential principle of religious liberty. All of the Framers understood that “no establishment” meant no national church and no government involvement in religion. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison believed that without separating church from state, there could be no real religious freedom.
The first use of the “wall of separation” metaphor was by Roger Williams, who founded Rhode Island in 1635. He said an authentic Christian church would be possible only if there was “a wall or hedge of separation” between the “wilderness of the world” and “the garden of the church.” Any government involvement in the church, he believed, corrupts the church.
Then in 1802, Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, wrote: “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.”
The Supreme Court has cited Jefferson’s letter in key cases, beginning with a polygamy case in the 19th century. In the 1947 case Everson v. Board of Education, the Court cited a direct link between Jefferson’s “wall of separation” concept and the First Amendment’s establishment clause.
Is it constitutional to teach about religion in a public school?
Yes. In the 1960s school-prayer cases that prompted rulings against state-sponsored school prayer and devotional Bible reading, the U.S. Supreme Court indicated that public school education may include teaching about religion. In Abington v. Schempp, Associate Justice Tom Clark wrote for the Court:
“[I]t might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.”
What general principles should public schools and religious communities follow when entering into a cooperative arrangement?
In these guidelines, a “cooperative arrangement” is defined as a shared participation in specific programs and activities in accordance with a written agreement. Before entering into a cooperative arrangement, public schools and religious communities should understand and accept the following principles:
1. Under the First Amendment, public schools must be neutral concerning religion in all of their activities. School officials must take the necessary steps to ensure that any cooperative activities that take place are wholly secular. Persons invited to address students during the school day shall be advised of this requirement and must agree to abide by it before being allowed access to students.
Not by way of criticism (far be it for me to criticize the Supreme Court), but the Supreme Court’s quote of Jefferson’s “wall of separation” language in Everson forever muddled First Amendment Establishment Clause jurisprudence. First of all, Jefferson was not the author of the Establishment Clause. Therefore, his views on what it meant don’t have a lot of relevance. However, if Jefferson’s views are to be considered, his view was, most probably, that the First Amendment didn’t even apply to the states. In Jefferson’s time, a number of states had, in fact, established state religions and nobody thought that violated the federal Constitution.
Moreover, the “wall of separation” quote was taken out of context from a letter Jeff wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association. It was an attempt to assuage the Baptist’s concern that the federal government (Jefferson was President at the time) would pass legislation restricting the ability of the Baptists to practice their religion. In view of this context, Jeff’s quote, if it is relevant at all, is more properly analyzed with respect to the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment rather than the Establishment Clause.
Yet, because of the Everson decision, courts continue to quote the “wall of separation” language in Establishment Clause cases as though the quote came down from Sinai with Moses. Oh, sorry, that was a religious reference.
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