On Rights and Religious Liberty

Without commenting on the particular events in U.S. politics that give rise to these issues, I want to consider the argument that it is reasonable to allow religiously-based schools to discriminate.

Here is the argument advanced in a column from Michael J. Petrilli, and it's a good argument:
Just as we wouldn’t expect a Montessori school to hire teachers who aren’t trained in, or committed to, the Montessori method, we wouldn’t expect a Christian school to hire teachers who are not committed to the Christian faith. The same holds true for Jewish schools, Muslim schools, and those of other faiths.
This is a premise that can be accepted. I'm not saying that I would endorse it personally, but the premise is certainly defensible, and I can imagine a reasonable person holding this view.

As I've documented before, there was a case in my own history when I was asked to please not return to Vacation Bible School because it was pretty clear I didn't have faith. I understood that request, and we amicably parted ways.

So why wouldn't this work for the school system? Why, in particular, wouldn't it work in a school voucher system, as suggested in this article? Petrilli suggests this line of reasoning:
There is great value to all Americans in preserving and promoting a pluralistic school system that allows schools to come in all shapes, sizes, and moral codes, and that empowers families to find schools that match their own values and educational priorities.  
I've written about this as well. Diversity is a strength. School boards should enable students with different wants and needs to attend different types of schools. I am comfortable with schooling that is based in religion. It's not for me, of course, but neither is hockey school.

So, abstracting from the hot-button issue of religion in schools, what can we make of the argument in its more general form to the effect that different types of schools can and should focus on different types of needs and methods, and that this necessarily means excluding some teachers and some students from them?

This is on the face of it pretty reasonable. You wouldn't enroll a non-dancer into dance school, and yet we have schools for young dancers in Canada. It would be absurd to close them.

So where does the Petrilli argument break down? It's in the difference between the public system and a system funded by vouchers.

In a voucher system, where schooling is offered by private providers, when a person (whether non-religious, or gay or lesbian, or whatever) is excluded, then the education of that person becomes someone else's problem.

It's not simply that the voucher school provides specialized learning, it's that it takes no responsibility for those outside the special group of students it serves (and teachers it hires).

When a publicly funded school system, by contrast, offers specialized schooling - be it sports-focused, religious-focused or Montessori-focused - it automatically assumes the responsibility to offer an education to those students not thusly specialized.

Education is a social responsibility.

That's why people without children (like me!) pay taxes to support education. We pay not just to support our own children, but to support all children in our society. The need for this is clear: if the only people who paid for education were people who had children in school, then few people could pay for education.

Too often the proponents of voucher systems turn their back on that responsibility. What do we do about a person who has a voucher but no school? How have we addressed this person's need? A proponent of a voucher school for one type of person has by that fact a responsibility to provide a school for the other type of person.

And this brings us back to discrimination.

It is reasonable to support a school based on certain values and principles. But it is not reasonable to deny the same degree of support for people without those values and principles. Not just equivalent services: but equivalent community, and sociality, and acceptance.

You don't get to exclude people from society. You don't get to exclude those people who are not like you or your children from all the comforts and benefits of society. Especially children: excluding children is a cruel form of abuse.

The more you wish to exclude a certain sort of person from a school, the more you have a responsibility to welcome them in your home.


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