An Interesting Hypothetical

Halloween is around the corner, an often controversial holiday in schools because some families object to the celebration on religious grounds. Whether families decide to dress their children up or watch scary movies together is not really our concern, but the discussion DOES remind us of a set of interesting hypotheticals posed in the Florida Law Review by Steven G. Calabresi and Abe Salander. This year, we’ve published several posts on discrimination and tolerance in schools, and we’ve discussed how experiencing discrimination can lead families to look for other options. Today, we continue this theme from a new perspective.

The authors, Calabresi and Salander, ask readers to imagine that a state plans to buy clothes for all residents, but then the state only buys clothes that ultimately fit the male body type. Undoubtedly, they argue, the program would be unconstitutional because the clothing would be unfit for women or for anyone that was not an average male body type.

Then, they take their hypothetical a step further. Calabresi and Salander ask readers to suppose the government shut down all public schools, and, instead, gave all students tuition vouchers. Students could use these vouchers at any private school of their choice, except there is one stipulation. Children are only allowed to attend schools with a secular curriculum; no religious curriculum of any type is allowed. Again, like the clothing scenario, such a selective funding program would clearly constitute discrimination on the basis of religion.

And yet, this is a picture of public schooling now, Calabresi and Salander argue.

“Our current public school system is simply the publicly operated version of that secular voucher program. Instead of funding only secular private schools, the government funds only secular public schools. Why should a program that funds only secular public schools be considered any less discriminatory than a program that funds only secular private schools?”

We are not suggesting here that every teacher should be required to know and teach every religion, but it is interesting to consider the hostile or ostracizing environments many religious children find themselves in at many public schools due to their beliefs and practices being labeled as abnormal or unwelcome at school. It’s interesting even to note that practices that might not even be considered religious or specific to a religion are often unwelcome if a religion would also preach those concepts (abstinence, for example).

In discussing these analogies with our staff, one of our younger, religious staff members described her own feelings related to public schooling when watching the movie, “A Walk to Remember” as a teenager. The movie portrays the story of a friendship between a wild, high school boy punished with community service who gets to know the religious, outcast girl doing community service of her own accord. There is much more to the plot than this dichotomy, but what stood out about the movie at the time to a young, religious teen was the immense ridicule and marginalization the young, religious character endured in the public school setting. On the one hand, the Hollywood portrayal felt true and sad, but also our staff member recalls feeling a sense of pride that there were “characters” out there making similar choices to her own.  Her description of relating to this character echos so many arguments for more “minority” characters in the mainstream. Being religious in a public school felt isolating.

Calabresi and Salander argue that in the same ways children have faced discrimination for race or sexual orientation at school, religious children also often face discrimination in public schools. Therefore, publicly funding an option where their views and identity are respected should feel like a no brainer.

Historically, giving consumers, who have been discriminated against, the ability to opt-out of something has given them power to change a system. But, if parents can’t afford to opt-out of a public school, they are stuck in that school because truancy laws generally require children to attend a public school. If you don’t send your child to school, social services can take your child away from you and give them to a foster parent who will send the child to school, as required. So, what choices do families have if they want certain values to be a part of their child’s education or if their child feels ostracized?

In the court case, Wisconsin v. Yoder, members of an Amish Mennonite church were actually convicted of violating Wisconsin’s compulsory school-attendance law by deciding not to send their children to a district-approved school after 8th grade. The court overturned their conviction, however, ruling that forcing families to do something that violates their religious principles is unconstitutional. Although this is not exactly a school choice “win,” it begs the question, without school choice, what options do families have who want to add values beyond a secular curriculum to their children’s education? What options do families have who feel like their children are being bullied for their beliefs?

Just food for thought as the air gets crisper, and parents make decisions about candy and costumes. Maybe Halloween costumes seem like a trivial topic, but it’s a good reminder of a much larger conversation. Not all families share the same religious beliefs, but most children are assigned to schools that will shape their worldview, despite what a parent may want for their child.

Image via Girgio Minguzzi