Guest essay by Kevin Theriot
Perhaps the hottest debate in education this past year has been over the federally sponsored educational standards being pushed through the Common Core State Standards Initiative. Common Core is urging states to codify what K-12 students have to know in English and mathematics to graduate from each grade level and, ultimately, to be accepted into college.
Common Core will likely have only an indirect effect on religious liberty—at least initially. But advocates for religious liberty and the family still have genuine cause for concern. Common Core creates another tool for big government (judges, legislators, and education policymakers) to control the beliefs and actions of parents and their students.
The Supreme Court has long recognized that parents have the right to direct the education—religious and otherwise—of their children. In 1923, the Court ruled in Meyer v. Nebraska that parents have the right to teach their children a foreign language at a young age. Two years later, the Court bolstered parental rights in the Pierce case, in which it held parents could educate their children in parochial instead of state-mandated public schools.
But lower courts have seriously undermined parental rights in recent years. A federal appeals court denied the right of parents to opt their public school children out of explicit sex education in Massachusetts, while the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (in another sex-education case) infamously said “Once parents make the choice as to which school their children will attend, their fundamental right to control the education of their children is … substantially diminished.”
The harmful trend is that parents cannot opt their children out of classes that conflict with their religious convictions. That restriction is likely to creep into parochial schools and even homeschooling through national education standards specifying what all students must be taught in order to move on to higher education.
Voluntary alignment with Common Core standards is increasing among parochial and private schools. College entrance exams and the GED exam are aligning with Common Core, so homeschooling parents may also feel pressure to comply with Common Core standards. The net effect is further restriction on parental freedom.
Parents have much more direct control of the education process when decisions about curriculum are made locally. Allowing the federal government to make decisions historically left to local school boards necessarily weakens any one parent’s ability to influence those decisions.
That prospect is particularly alarming given the federal government’s recent track record of disregarding the religious convictions of people of faith. Though the Supreme Court ruled against it, the Obama Administration took the legal position that its interest in providing national health care trumps a faith-based business’s right to refuse to cover medical care that violates its beliefs. Even after that loss, the government is continuing its legal efforts to force religious ministries that are not churches to allow their employee benefit programs to be used as a conduit for morally objectionable medical care like abortifacients.
The government’s rationale for forcing even Christian schools like Geneva College to allow their employee health plans to be used to provide abortion-causing drugs is simple: it thinks its secular moral interests are more important than any religious morality opposed to these drugs. At bottom, the government is attempting to coerce business owners and ministries to adopt a type of national secular orthodoxy in place of their own religious teachings.
There is absolutely no reason to believe the federal government will not use Common Core national education standards the same way. Once the current benign standards are widely adopted, they can be changed to bolster a secular orthodoxy. For example, national standards for health curricula could require explicit teaching about reproduction, sexuality, and contraception, even at the elementary school level. All who are concerned about religious liberty should be on guard against the misuse of Common Core to create a common morality.
The original of this article, appeared on the Alliance Defending Freedom website. Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith (About).
Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Counsel Kevin Theriot is vice president of the ADF Religious Liberty Team and director of the Education Project.