School Choice and Religious Freedom

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

An “interfaith” group has send a hyperventilating letter to Bobby Jindal calling Louisiana’s new school voucher program “a blatant attack on the religious freedom clauses in the United States Constitution.” And that’s one of the less painfully overwrought passages. There’s no hope of getting sound legal, moral, theological or sociological reasoning from such people, but I thought I’d take the occasion to revisit some of the reasons why school choice is a vital step forward, not backward, for religious freedom.

1) Fair play, the rule of law and equal treatment. Religious freedom requires that religious people and institutions be treated the same way everyone else is treated. I would think this would be so obvious as to be axiomatic. Yet everywhere you turn around, people think that if religious schools participate in the American education system on the same terms as other schools – which is really all school choice does – that is somehow a threat to religious freedom. What if we applied this reasoning to other sectors? If the church is burning down, don’t call the fire department! If someone sprays swastikas on the synagogue, don’t call the police! Don’t hook up the mosque to the municipal water lines! That would be a taxpayer subsidy for religion, you know.

2) Childrearing, formation and faith communities. As many people know, one of the most important Supreme Court decisions on religious freedom upheld the right of the Amish to raise their children according to Amish tradition against compulsory attendance laws. The details of the reasoning that the court used to reach that conclusion are problematic, but we don’t need to be detained by that here; the result was clearly right. A religion is not just a set of intellectual propositions one assents to. It is a total way of life, one that may be expressed differently in different individuals, but also coheres in important ways across individuals, and subsists in relationships and institutions as well as in individuals. In other words, a religion consists not only of individual belief but of a faith community. The formation and rearing of children is a necessary part of that; deny people the ability to raise their children according to the dictates of their conscience and you stamp out religious freedom. You can like this fact or hate it, but it remains a fact. As the court noted, society has a legitimate mandate to see to it that children are educated in some way, but this must not become an occasion for stamping out religious minorities whose mode of education is different. Requiring the Amish to raise their children the same way others do is not just tantamount to outlawing the Amish religion; it actually is outlawing the Amish religion. School choice extends this principle further by making American society a place where every family, not just families who prefer secular schools, has equal access to childrearing according to conscience.

3) The death of character in the common school. Pat Wolf has shown that the empirical evidence consistently finds private schools are better at teaching the civic values on which democracy rests. Charles Glenn, James Davison Hunter and others have shown why. The “common school” model, coralling families of all faiths into one school and requiring that school not to violate the religious beliefs of any of those families, compels schools to become morally neutered. Even where they try to teach moral character, they fail (Hunter has extensive data on this). The reason is simple: the inculcation of moral character requires more than scolding children to be honest, be diligent, etc. Telling edifying stories also fails. Not in every case, but in general, the reliable formation of moral character requires (Hunter again) attachment to something higher and greater than oneself, and the absorbtion at an early age of an intrinsic motivation to prioritize that higher something over the gratification of one’s own desires.

There’s much more to be said, of course, but I didn’t want to let the moment pass without at least this much of a statement of the case.

4 Responses to School Choice and Religious Freedom

  1. Matthew Ladner says:


  2. Joe Sterbinsky a.k.a. TeacherJoeInLosAngeles says:

    Well said. Couldn’t have said it better nor agree more. (Does that shock any of you who regullary read my criticisms here?

  3. Minnesota Kid says:

    Ditto (and that’s not a reference to Rush).

  4. […] School choice is one of the best things we can do for democracy. […]

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