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Must Education Be Faith Free

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Must public education be free from all religion? Should parents who want Biblical education pay twice but - once, through taxes for public school, and again for a private school with their values? The Freedom From Religion Foundation staged another attack on a school released-time policy. The FFRF insists that the plan is “granting special treatment to attend select evangelical Christian education courses,” and that violates the Constitution.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation staged another attack on a school released-time policy in January 2013. A high school in Dawson County, Georgia plans to accept elective high school credits for Biblical courses from an accredited Christian center. The FFRF has demanded that the school board sever that relationship as unconstitutional. The school board states that Georgia law requires that all public schools accept credits from accredited schools. The Center is in the process of being accredited. The Center’s representative points out that the classes are independent of the school system, do not use taxpayer money, and are funded by donations. The FFRF insists that the plan is “granting special treatment to attend select evangelical Christian education courses,” and that violates the Constitution.

This dispute centers around the educational concept of concept of released time, which was ruled constitutional in 1952 if it takes place under certain parameters. A released-time program must have a secular purpose; must have a primary effect that neither advances nor inhibits religion; and must not excessively entangle church and state. School employees cannot teach classes, public school funds cannot be used, and the administrative burden must be minimal.

A June 2012 Fourth Circuit case, Moss v. Spartanburg County School District Seven, held that a program very similar to that proposed in Dawson County was constitutional. (Georgia is in the Eleventh Circuit, so this holding is only persuasive.) In that case, the FFRF had filed a lawsuit, alleging that the policy violated the Establishment Clause. The Court held that the secular purpose was to accommodate the wishes of parents; the school was responding passively to parents’ rights to educate their children (and was neither advancing nor inhibiting religion); and a carefully structured program does not entangle church and state.

A similar analysis applies here. Parents can pay for elective credits in advanced physics, Mandarin, or Biblical studies, and the school will accept them under Georgia law if the institution is accredited. Thus, the proposed plan defers to the wishes of parents and their rights to educate their children. Simply accepting all credits from accredited schools need not entangle the school in evaluating religion.

FFRF’s real argument here is that public education must be free from all religion. In their view, parents who want Biblical education and pay taxes to educate their children must not only pay twice (by funding the private elective credits), but take on the entire burden of education by removing their children from public schools. This view is misguided. What is being offered to these students is not “special treatment” but “equal treatment.” The Establishment Clause is meant to be neutral towards religion, not carpet-bomb it from the philosophical landscape.

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