Montgomery County, Maryland, which lies just outside of Washington, D.C., is one of America’s richest and most populous counties. It is also home to the largest school system in Maryland and fourteenth-largest in the United States. For the current school year (2019-2020), the Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) system has 208 schools, more than 165,000 students, more than 24,000 employees, more than 1,300 school buses, and an operating budget of $2.6 billion. Students in the county hail from 157 countries and speak 150 languages. Certain events and controversies in the MCPS over the past seven or so years are the ideal vehicle for looking at the subject of religion and education in a free society.
In 2013, the Maryland chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-MD) launched its “Equality for Eid” (E4E) campaign, which sought to persuade MCPS to close its schools for Muslim Eid holidays: Eid al-Fitr, the festival of breaking the fast, is a religious holiday marking the end of Ramadan; and Eid al-Adha, the festival of the sacrifice, is a Muslim holiday honoring the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac as commanded by God. (The dates vary each year according to the lunar Islamic calendar.)
In response, in 2014, Montgomery County’s board of education voted 7 to 1 to eliminate references to religious holidays on the school calendar, beginning the following school year (2015-2016). Time off school around Christmas and Easter became “winter break” and “spring break.” Jewish holidays Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur became simply days when there was “no school for students and teachers.” Muslim leaders considered the decision a glaring mistake. “By stripping the names Christmas, Easter, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur, they have alienated other communities now, and we are no closer to equality,” said Saqib Ali, co-chair of the E4E Coalition. “It’s a pretty drastic step, and they did it without any public notification.”
But in 2015, when making the calendar for the 2016-2017 school year, Montgomery County’s board of education voted 6-2 to make September 12, 2016 — the date of Eid al-Adha — a teacher professional day. (Eid al-Fitr fell on June 25, 2017 — after school was out for the summer.) Naturally, some conservative and Christian groups were unhappy with the school district’s ostensibly observing a Muslim holiday. Eid al-Adha does not fall during the school year again until 2025. However, the same is not true of Eid al-Fitr.
Late last year, the Montgomery County school board adopted the school calendar for the 2020-2021 school year, which begins on August 31. It gives students a day off on Eid al-Fitr, which falls on May 13, 2021. Again, the day is designated as a teacher professional day. The Washington Post reported that leading up to the adoption of the calendar, “Muslim parents and students had pressed for the day off, citing the holiday’s importance and issues of fairness.” “This is a big victory for our students,” said Samira Hussein, the other co-chair of the E4E Coalition. “They will feel accepted and acknowledged by their teachers, their board of education, their superintendent.” CAIR lauded the school board for making the Islamic holy day a day off for students. The school board’s actions show “a strong commitment to inclusivity, diversity, and equity.” The calendar also makes February 12, 2021 — Lunar New Year, celebrated by many Asian families — a teacher professional day. And again, some conservative and Christian groups objected to public schools’ being closed on Muslim holidays. But that’s not the only thing that they are upset about.
In October last year, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case of Caleigh Wood, John Wood, and Melissa Wood v. Evelyn Arnold, Shannon Morris, and Board of Education of Charles County. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Virginia, had, on February 11, 2019, affirmed the judgment of the U.S. District Court of the District of Maryland for the defendants. As stated in the opinion of the Court of Appeals,
During the 2014-2015 school year, Wood was an eleventh-grade student at La Plata High School, a public high school in Charles County, Maryland. Arnold was La Plata’s principal, and Morris was employed as one of the school’s vice-principals.
Wood was required to take a world history course, which was part of the school’s social studies curriculum.
The smallest unit of the world history course, encompassing five days, was entitled “The Muslim World.” The unit was “designed to explore, among other things, formation of Middle Eastern empires including the basic concepts of the Islamic faith and how it along with politics, culture, economics, and geography contributed to the development of those empires.”
Wood also was required to complete a worksheet summarizing the lesson on Islam. The worksheet addressed topics such as the growth and expansion of Islam, the “beliefs and practices” of Islam, and the links between Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Part of the worksheet required the students to “fill in the blanks” to complete certain information comprising the “Five Pillars” of Islam. Included in that assignment was the statement: “There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah,” a portion of a declaration known as the shahada.
The student’s father objected to the materials about Islam. He “asserted that Islam should not be taught in the public school,” “demanded that his daughter be given alternative assignments,” and “directed his daughter to refuse to complete any assignment associated with Islam on the ground that she was not required to “‘do anything that violated [her] Christian beliefs.’” He then sued the defendants, alleging that they violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause by endorsing the Islamic religion and violated the Free Speech Clause by requiring her to complete the shahada assignment, thereby “depriv[ing] [her] of her right to be free from government-compelled speech.”
The Thomas More Law Center (TMLC) represented Wood in the lawsuit. Richard Thompson, president and chief counsel of the TMLC, commented on the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the case thus:
I’m not aware of any public school which has forced a Muslim student to write the Lord’s Prayer or John 3:16.
Yet, under the pretext of teaching history or social studies, public schools across America are promoting the religion of Islam in ways that would never be tolerated for Christianity or any other religion. It’s disappointing that the Supreme Court did not take this opportunity to clarify the test which lower courts should use when ruling on establishment clause and free speech challenges to public school classes on religion.
Many public schools have become hotbeds of Islamic propaganda. Teaching Islam in schools has gone far beyond a basic history lesson. Prompted by zealous Islamic activism and emboldened by confusing court decisions, schools are now bending over backwards to promote Islam while at the same time denigrating Christianity.
In affirming the district court’s judgment for the defendants, the Court of Appeals ruled that “the challenged coursework materials, viewed in the context in which they were presented, did not violate Wood’s First Amendment rights, because they did not impermissibly endorse any religion and did not compel Wood to profess any belief.”
Religious conservatives are also disturbed about another religion case that the Supreme Court declined to hear. In 2018, the Fourth U.S. Court of Appeals reversed the decision of a federal district court dismissing a lawsuit filed against the Mercer County School System in West Virginia because it offered a “Bible in the Schools” program in fifteen elementary schools and three middle schools. The lawsuit was filed in 2017 on behalf of a Mercer County family by the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF). “We don’t send our children to public schools to get religious instruction; we send them to get educated,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the FFRF. The lawsuit alleged that the “Bible in the Schools” program was “unconstitutional” because it endorsed “one religion,” improperly entangled “public schools in religious affairs,” and violated “the personal consciences of nonreligious and non-Christian parents and students.” The Bible classes were not mandatory, funding for the teachers came from private donations, and students who participated were required to submit a form signed by their parents. The plaintiffs maintain that their children risked “ostracism” from other students if they did not attend the Bible classes. The Court of Appeals’ reversal means that the parents of children in the school system have legal standing to challenge the Bible classes.
There are also two cases concerning religion that the Supreme Court did decide to hear: Our Lady of Guadalupe v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James School v. Biel. The plaintiffs in these cases were both teachers at Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles who were fired. A federal district court ruled for the schools in both cases. However, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco, California, reversed both decisions. At issue in the two cases is the scope of the “ministerial exception,” first recognized by the Supreme Court in a unanimous 2012 decision, which exempts religious employers from workplace bias claims when hiring and firing certain workers. The district court ruled that the teachers were “ministers,” since their jobs involved “conveying the church’s message,” “praying” with students, and “including Catholic teachings” in lessons. The Court of Appeals ruled to the contrary, emphasizing that “the teachers did not hold leadership positions, present publicly as ministers, or possess theological training.” The Supreme Court will hear arguments in these two cases in late spring, with decisions to follow by June.
In light of all of the above, there are many questions that could be asked about religion and education. Should public schools suspend classes on Muslim religious holidays? Should public schools suspend classes on Christian holy days? Should public schools suspend classes on Jewish religious holidays? Should public schools suspend classes on the Lunar New Year holiday celebrated by Asian families? Should religious instruction be provided in public schools? Should there be Bible reading in public schools? Should there be prayer in public schools? Should the Ten Commandments be posted in public schools? Should the Bible be studied in public schools? Should Christianity be promoted in public schools? Should Islam be denigrated in public schools? Should the history of Islam not be taught in public schools? Should creationism be taught in public schools? Should the teaching of evolution be prohibited in public schools? Should voluntary Bible classes be offered in public schools? Should private religious schools be eligible for government funding or voucher programs? Should private religious schools be exempt from religious discrimination lawsuits? Should the Christmas holiday period in public schools be called the winter break? Should Muslim girls in public schools be allowed to attend school while wearing a hijab? Should Jewish boys in public schools be allowed to attend school while wearing a yarmulke? Is the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause violated if a public school “promotes” or “endorses” one religion over another?
There are, of course, many other questions that don’t concern religion that could be asked specifically about public schools. Should students in public schools wear uniforms? Should students in public schools have to follow a dress code? Should students in public schools who claim to be transgender be able to use the restroom and locker room of their choice? Should teachers in public schools be allowed to carry guns? Should public schools have metal detectors? Should public schools practice corporal punishment? Should public schools have to follow national standards? Should students be bused to public schools outside of their neighborhoods in order to achieve racial balance? Should public schools institute zero-tolerance policies when it comes to weapons or drugs? Should students in public schools be forbidden to have cell phones in the classroom? Should students in public schools be required to recite the Pledge of Allegiance? Should there be more technology in public-school classrooms? Should public schools allow access to students by military recruiters? Should sex education be taught in public schools? Should public schools promote abstinence education? Should public-school teachers have tenure? Should public-school teachers be unionized? Should public schools have year-round schooling? Should school health clinics provide contraception devices and abortion referrals? Should the government provide educational vouchers to low-income parents so their children can escape failing public schools and attend “the school of their choice”?
Education in a free society
In a free society, none of the above questions would ever be asked, and none of the above cases would ever be in the federal or state court systems. In a free society, there would be no controversies in public schools concerning the teaching, promoting, endorsing, or denigrating of religion in general or a particular religion. In a free society there would be no such thing as public schools, which, it should be remembered, are first and foremost government schools. In a free society, public education would not exist, because public schools maintain their existence by compulsion and coercion, that is, by mandatory-attendance laws and taxation. In a free society, it would be an illegitimate purpose of government to have anything to do with education, because it is not the purpose of government to provide educational services any more than it is the purpose of government to provide landscaping services, manicure and pedicure services, hair-styling services, pest-control services, or car-repair services. In a free society, parents would be solely responsible for the education of their children, including their children’s religious education, just as parents are now responsible for their children’s feeding, clothing, lodging, training, health, recreation, transportation, and disciplining. In a free society, all education would be privately provided and privately funded. In a free society, not only would no American would be forced to pay for the education of his own children, no American would be forced to pay for the education of any other Americans or their children.
In a free society — on the federal level — there would be no federal student loans, Pell grants, school breakfast or lunch programs, school-accreditation agencies, Head Start, Higher Education Act, Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Education for All Handicapped Children Act, government vouchers, special-education or bilingual-education or Title IX mandates, Common Core, research grants to colleges and universities, math and science initiatives, federal desegregation orders, federal busing mandates, No Child Left Behind Act, or Race to the Top funds, and no federal Department of Education.
The U.S. Constitution does not authorize the federal government to pass legislation regarding any of those programs or to have anything to do with the education of anyone. An education at public expense is not a constitutional right. Furthermore, the federal government has no authority to subsidize, intervene, regulate, or interfere in any way with a state’s public-school system.
In a free society — on the state level — there would be no public schools, public-school teachers, state colleges or universities, government-issued educational vouchers, teacher-education requirements, teacher licensing, teacher-certification standards, property taxes earmarked for public schools, truancy laws, truant officers, school boards, or state boards of regents, and no state departments of education. There would also be no regulation, monitoring, accreditation, or control by state or local governments of private schools, religious schools, non-traditional schools, or home schools. Charter schools, because they are still public schools, would not exist.
Now, although it is true that all state constitutions have provisions for the establishment and maintenance of a public-education system at the primary, secondary, and college levels, they do not ipso facto make education a legitimate purpose of government.
Religion and education
There are a number of things that we can conclude about religion and education in a free society.
In a free society, churches, denominations, synagogues, mosques, temples, religious organizations, nonprofit companies, for-profit companies, entrepreneurs — and even secular humanist, agnostic, and atheist groups — would be perfectly free to operate their own schools and teach whatever they wanted to teach about the merits and demerits of religion in general, the doctrine and practices of a particular religion, or the superiority of one religion to another.
In a free society, each individual school would decide whether the Ten Commandments or the text of some other religious document is to be posted; whether the Bible is to be read or studied in the classroom; whether the Bible is to be viewed as authoritative; what version of the Bible is to be used; whether prayers are to be said at graduation, before football games, or in the classroom; whether the Koran is to be studied; whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or any other religious holidays are to be observed; whether evolution or creationism is to be taught in science classes; whether religious headgear, hairstyles, apparel, or jewelry is permitted; and whether sex education or abstinence education is taught.
In a free society, parents would be free to provide, or have a school provide, their children however much or however little religious instruction they choose. If parents don’t like the religious instruction or lack of religious instruction at one school, they can enroll their children in another school. If parents don’t like the way religion is presented or not presented at any school then they can hire a tutor to educate their children or teach their children themselves.
In a free society, any school could require adherence to any religious creed or confession and discriminate against any potential or actual student, teacher, administrator, or staff member who refuses to subscribe to a particular religious point of view.
In a free society, religious schools, just like all other schools, would have to be self-supporting. No government funding or vouchers would be available. If government shouldn’t fund public schools, then it is certainly shouldn’t fund private schools. “School choice” would never mean giving parents the choice of where to spend other people’s money for the education of their children.
In a free society, the educational possibilities are without limit, just as the controversies regarding religion and education are, as far the law is concerned, nonexistent.
This article was originally published in the April 2020 edition of Future of Freedom.