Republicans, Muslim Schools, and the Separation of Church and State

You’ve probably heard the story by now. It’s been going around the internet for the past week or so, I think. Apparently a in Louisiana Muslim school applied to receive students with vouchers under a new law there. And, predictably, Republican lawmakers – those who had pushed the voucher law in the first place – freaked out. In their minds, giving state money to fundamentalist Christian schools is just fine and dandy – some might say it’s the reason behind the new voucher law in the first place – but giving money to Muslim schools? Heck no!

So I thought I’d offer a little history lesson to place this in some context. The earliest public schools in this country, back in the 1840s (Horace Mann, etc.), were Protestant in nature. The teacher would read from the Bible, but would not comment on it. This distinction was important, because while almost all Americans were Protestant they belonged to a variety of different denominations, and each denomination had its own specific beliefs and specific interpretations of the Bible. Thus while they all agreed on the Bible, they disagreed on how to understand it. Hence a teacher could read from the Bible, but not tell students how they should understand it.

Enter the Catholics. The increasing numbers of Catholic immigrants were uncomfortable with the public schools and their Bible reading. First, the Bible that was generally read from was the King James Version, which is a Protestant version, and second, Catholics don’t hold the same view of the primacy of the Bible that Protestants do. Catholics began founding their own schools and asking for public money for them. The Catholics argued that since there were publicly-funded Protestant schools, there should be publicly-funded Catholic schools too. The Protestants responded by gradually eliminating the Protestant teaching that took place in the public schools. Why? So that they could argue that these schools were secular, not Protestant, and thus refuse Catholic schools funding. Which they did.

Around WWII, though, things changed. Catholics became more and more accepted as both true Americans and as true Christians, and the “Judeo-Christian” consensus with its idea that we were a “Judeo-Christian” (rather than a Protestant) nation developed. During this time the amount of religious practices in schools actually increased, and were carefully constructed so as to be acceptable to Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. In other words, while the in-group had before been Protestants, it was now a Judeo-Christian consensus of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. In 1962 and 1963, however, in lawsuits brought by a number of secular families, schools’ use of prayer and Bible reading was struck down as an unconstitutional establishment of religion.

In our country and in our schools, it has long been true that the greater the religious diversity, the safer the separation of church and state. This was true back at the very founding of our nation. Our founding fathers, after all, established the separation of church and state not out of the goodness of their hearts but because each denomination was afraid that some other denomination would gain preference. For this reason, I think more diversity of belief – whether it’s Muslims or Buddhists or Hindus or atheists – is a good thing, and the best guarantee that a separation of church and state will be honored and maintained.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • http://cfiottawa.com Eamon Knight

    So that they could argue that these schools were secular, not Protestant, and thus refuse Catholic schools funding.

    ….whereas up here, they extended funding to Catholic schools — it was part of the compromise that made Confederation possible (Quebec, ya’ know). The Protestant schools gradually evolved into completely secular public schools, but the Catholic system we still have with us, in a few provinces (some of us would like to change that, though the issue hasn’t gotten a lot of mainstream traction yet).

    OTOH, we don’t have nitwit theocrats in office blithely assuming fundy Christian privilege in the school system (at least not in Ontario — I hear they get a bit of that in Alberta).

    OTOH,

  • http://cfiottawa.com Eamon Knight

    So that they could argue that these schools were secular, not Protestant, and thus refuse Catholic schools funding.

    ….whereas up here, they extended funding to Catholic schools — it was part of the compromise that made Confederation possible (Quebec, ya’ know). The Protestant schools gradually evolved into completely secular public schools, but the Catholic system we still have with us, in a few provinces (some of us would like to change that, though the issue hasn’t gotten a lot of mainstream traction yet).

    OTOH, we don’t have nitwit theocrats in office blithely assuming fundy Christian privilege in the school system (at least not in Ontario — I hear they get a bit of that in Alberta).

  • smrnda

    I tend to find there is a huge double-standard in the minds of many American Christians but somehow they never seem to actually see it for themselves. They demand that schools present creationism as credible science when it’s not out of respect for their beliefs under the guise that they want kids to hear ‘both sides’ but when it comes to sex education, they want to make sure that their side is the only one that gets taught.

    I think part of the problem is that many American Christians have no concept of neutrality in any way. A guy in college argued that the ‘official religion of the US is atheism’ because schools didn’t openly proclaim that God existed and that our government did not officially proclaim the existence of God; he didn’t seem to figure out that schools not teaching that God exist does not mean the school is officially teaching that God does NOT exist. Lots of Christians kind o f think in a binary where if you aren’t 100% for them you’re 100% against them. It seems supported by some stuff in the Bible but it seems like a bad way to view public policy.

  • Rod

    One of the main reasons I heard that the FFs insisted on a clear separation of church and stsate was that for a lot of the 17th and 18th century, much of Europe was engaged in brutal wars and repression based solely on religion…. Protestant/Catholic/Hugenot/you name it, and the FFs wanted to be sure that this did not spill over to the new United States. Anyone know if this idea is correct? As a Canadian I am not familiar with the details of Jefferson’s reasoning.
    I do know that the continuing Catholic/Protestant school issue in Ontario is a divisive issue but not top of anyone’s agenda right now.

    • Kilroy

      The usual story is that, whereas England had an established church (the Church of England), the framers of the U.S. Constitution didn’t want one because there was already enough religious diversity in the U.S. that there would inevitably be disagreement over which church got to be the established one. Massachusetts tended Congregationalist, Maryland was Catholic, the rest of the South tended Episcopalian (i.e. former Church of England), and almost everywhere there religious minorities of various kinds.

      However, the “usual story” is not quite correct. The First Amendment bars those acts of Congress, not “providing for an establishment of a church,” but rather those “providing for an establishment of religion.” That’s a more sweeping prohibition that means that Congress not only can’t privilege one church over the others, but can’t privilege religion in general over its absence. At least that’s how James Madison understood it, and he is still called “the Father of the Constitution.” But others seem to have understood it differently, and it continues to be understood differently today.

      Separation of church and state at the state rather than the federal level was, however, a local option and was a matter for the individual state constitutions rather than the federal Constitution. But the federal courts would eventually hold that the First Amendment, via the Fourteenth Amendment, also prohibits “establishment of religion” under cover of state law, even though the First Amendment talks specifically about acts of Congress and says nothing about the states.

      Clear? I didn’t think so….

    • Froborr

      Don’t know about the U.S. as a whole, but I remember reading that Rhode Island was the first of the 13 colonies to guarantee religious freedom, because it was founded by refugees from the repressive theocracy that was Massachussets c. 1630-ish.

      I suspect, in the case of Jefferson et al, it was not so much a direct response to Europe’s wars as a philosophical commitment to freedom of conscience as part of their general Enlightenment principles. Keep in mind that the Enlightenment was primarily inspired by Greco-Roman philosophy that reached Europe by way of Muslim scholars; Rome allowed you to follow any religion you wished as long as you *also* participated in the state religion (with a special exemption for Jews), and the Muslim states allowed religious freedom to Christians and Jews as long as they paid a tax. In other words, neither had true religious freedom, but both acknowledged and tolerated the presence of religious minorities. The religious wars in Europe, and generally the abuse of religious authority that characterized the period, were probably also a major factor in Enlightenment philosophy embracing freedom of conscience, as well!

      Still, as Libby Anne points out in the OP, it’s worth noting that regardless of what the framers of the Constitution may or may not have intended, true freedom of, including freedom from, religion did not really start to gain traction in the U.S. until the 20th century, and especially after WWII.

  • Kilroy

    I suspect, in the case of Jefferson et al, it was not so much a direct response to Europe’s wars as a philosophical commitment to freedom of conscience as part of their general Enlightenment principles.

    Oh, I suspect that the fact Jefferson was a deist and not an orthodox Christian had something to do with it.


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