Editorial - Access Denied

Like any parent, I want the best for my children. I want to give them every opportunity our society and my means can provide. I want to protect them from harm and insult, which often carries greater harm than a bruising tumble. I want them to have high values and a faith in the transcendent.

In the case of my 5-year-old son, Christopher, that "want" profile took substance recently as we set about choosing a school for him. By law of the land this little lad has to enter formal schooling, even though in our eyes too few days have passed to remove the image of a wide-eyed and vulnerable infant staring up at my wife and me from the bundled security of his bassinet. Perhaps we will never shake off that image. I have always suspected that my own father has seen me that way, especially in my teens when I cringed as he introduced me as his boy. Such are the vulnerabilities of life.

My wife and I settled on sending Christopher to a Christian academy in the semirural Maryland countryside where we live. It was the ideal combination of new facilities, rural location with plenty of play space, and stated religious values to the curriculum. My wife pursued the details of application with all diligence, as we had already learned by experience that even preschool involved getting on a waiting list and a vetting process—for us!
Then a few months ago we were called to bring Christopher in for an interview. Inside track, it seemed.

Christopher responded to the administrator's questions with an application that surprised me. He wrote his name almost
without error. (It seems you now need to be able to read the alphabet and write your name before entering kindergarten—I've even begun to wonder if choosing a longer name for a child doesn't create a certain academic disadvantage!) He drew the requested items with panache. In short, he appeared as ready as any 5-year-old for his SATs!

While our son was busy, the administrator discussed the educational goals of the school with us. "We teach Christian values at—academy," he said.

"Yes," I replied, "that is really why we chose this school."

"What do you think of the Bible?" he asked. A question I thought a little odd.

"It is God's inspired Word, and the only rule of faith for Christians," I replied, thinking it as succinct an answer as needed.

"We teach the Ten Commandments to our children," the administrator continued. "Do you have any problem with that?"

"Certainly not," I answered. "Again, that is why we chose this school."

"We will teach Sunday observance," he stated, as though that were a big problem and surprise to us.

I spent some time explaining that as a Seventh-day Adventist I keep the Saturday Sabbath precisely because of the Ten Commandments, but could hardly find it offensive that they might present something a little different in their school environment. I reiterated that we had chosen the school precisely because of its overall religious and moral climate.

The interview ended well, I thought. We were told we would hear from them shortly.

Our family traveled overseas for several weeks, and on our return we found a letter from the school administrator in the huge pile of mail. We read it first, with Christopher looking on. It was not the reply I had expected.

The letter was only two sentences. "After speaking with you at your interview, I felt that it would not be in the best interest of your child to accept him at—Academy," wrote the administrator. "This is based on the many religious differences with your family and what will be taught at—Academy."

My wife had to tell Christopher he had been rejected by the school he was to attend. And for me there was the startling reminder that all the constitutional guarantees of religious liberty cannot remove religious prejudice.

I called the administrator—just in case they had thought us uneasy or argumentative on the religious issue. I repeated our acceptance—indeed, delight—at their desire to inculcate religious values. He was pleasant and reassured me that it was not anything we had said. It was board policy not to accept anyone outside what they had determined to be the religious mainstream.

We talked for a long time. He seemed tone-deaf to the logic of most religious schools, which gladly take students from other faiths in the hope of attracting new believers. He seemed unconcerned that his school's policy was prejudicial. And he was amazingly dismissive of any legal vulnerability, claiming they take no government funds (a claim instantly dismissed by a young doctor in our development with two young sons: "Of course they take government money," he sniffed). Finally the administrator agreed to take the issue back to his board.

Indeed, I held some hope they might reconsider. But when I called back after the board, it was an even more rigid stance. He was not even sure we were Christians in the doctrinal sense. And he defended the policy as the general direction of Christian schools of late—I hope not, for all our sakes!

Which put me to mind of the recent and continuing issue of government funding for church schools and church-run charitable programs.

Vouchers and other indirect subsidies for church schools have many constitutional and everyday hazards. This magazine has discussed the issue at length. I have seen little on the very real possibility that broad and routine state funding might actually encourage majority religious groups to exclude people of other faith views. In fact, it is possible that government funding could actually be applied with just such an intention.

Some time ago I remarked on listening to the foreign minister of a small single religion state maintaining that his country has religious freedom, even as he bridled at the suggestion that foreign visitors be allowed to practice their faith. I think most people of faith in the United States see religious education and other religious activity as an active sharing of faith. But much of the world does not see it that way. For them these are ways to protect and exclude. And so often the state support—financial and legislative—is a way for them to dispatch their opposition. That was once a pattern even here in the Americas. A Constitution and the compromises that went into its formulation broke the cycle of state-empowered religious aggression.

A siege mentality comes more easily in a time of national and religious crisis. A time like ours. You know; clash of cultures, secularism, and the threat of sects. This is the worst time to empower a threatened majority with power and/or money.

The faith-based initiative we once heard so much of before September 11 is, of course, still with us and very much alive. I remember how the initial arguments in favor of funding emphasized the greater effectiveness of faith-based programs in relation to state-run welfare programs. When it became apparent that this claim was anecdotal and unproven, the logic shifted to arguing for a "level playing field." I think it a matter of some certainty that faith-based programs produce greater personal change, precisely because they are faith-based and not secular—nothing at all to be ashamed of. What was disingenuous was the initial claim that churches would not be allowed to project their particular values in such programs, and to "discriminate" in hiring and firing, for example. The Salvation Army got politically burned for even suggesting that they had received guarantees of such under the plan.

In a front-page story of June 25, 2003, the Washington Post reported that "President Bush called on Congress yesterday to make it easier for federally funded religious groups to base their hiring decisions on a job candidate's religion and sexual orientation."

Now we have a real test of the nation's commitment to pluralism and the constitutional restraint of religious majorities! I think it axiomatic that all religions be protected from countervailing laws that might inhibit matters of faith, unless they present a clear hazard to public security. But it is a peril of the worst kind to fund such necessary exclusion from the public purse. Even the most cursory reading of history leading up to the forming of the new nation and Constitution reveals various religious blocs ever ready to act in exclusionary ways against others. In many ways the First Amendment is a recognition of that troublesome tendency, not just a protection against it.

Let us never use the public purse to close a door against anyone. And let us work to create a society of tolerance and acceptance for all.

Article Author: Lincoln E. Steed

Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."