When Religious Zealots Rule

It’s probably the most common trait among humans. We always want to tell others how to live, to set the social agenda for our friends and neighbors. That’s particularly true when religion gets into the act, which it almost always does, and becomes the guiding principle for existence, no matter how impractical and oppressive.

That’s certainly the case also with those who make a religion out of being nonreligious, like the atheist who wants to take “under God” out of the Pledge of Allegiance and has won the support of at least one silly federal judge from California. Having been a schoolboy both before and after that phrase was inserted in the pledge, I don’t really recall it made much impact on me one way or another.

But then some religion in our public schools _ like the prayer to start the morning _ was pretty much taken for granted in those days before the Supreme Court told us it violated the Constitution’s anti-establishment clause about separation of church and state, which I guess it does.

The forces behind restoring these practices have argued for decades that their exclusion from the public schools was a denial of religious freedom in a nation founded on Christianity. Their opponents see things just the opposite, contending that the seemingly harmless gestures toward one religion were oppressive and exclusionary of other faiths and have no place in public activities like education. This latter view, of course, has been endorsed by the courts and has brought about a proliferation of religious-oriented schools and a large increase in the number of parents who have opted to teach their children at home.

However, the desire by zealots to create a more faith-based curriculum in educational institutions supported by property taxes has not abated. In fact, it has become stronger, with the increase of political activism by those whose agenda is religious in nature. The last presidential election is a case in point. Christian conservatives clearly had a major impact on the re-election of George W. Bush. They are seeking to collect on that debt by, among other things, influencing the appointment of federal judges who would rule in their favor on a whole raft of social issues, from abortion to school prayer.

No better example of the religious activism invading the public school system can be found than in Charles County, Md., where the school board is now held by those whose agenda is to establish standards and curriculum in line with their ecclesiastical beliefs. What makes this unusual and more than a little disturbing is that the board chairwoman is home-schooling her children; another member of the panel’s majority has done so and a third is the host of a Christian radio broadcast for youth who both attended and taught at non-public religious schools, according to published reports.

Their efforts to dictate what books can be read and to influence other portions of the suburban Washington county’s curriculum understandably have infuriated teachers and their unions and brought about a sharp division among parents who regard this as an outrageous effort to control a system by those who have chosen not to participate in it. One would be hard put to argue with that. It is difficult to imagine a more glaring intrusion on responsible, orderly and fair governance.

It would be far better if Margaret Young, the chairwoman of the education board, had fought this battle for her positions from inside the system. Her explanation has been that she needs to educate her children now and can’t wait until she improves the public schools. What may seem as improvement to her is rightly viewed as far less than that by others.

There are, of course, a huge number of alternatives for those who wish to make their religion a part of their children’s education. In addition to the parochial schools, Christian academies and home teaching, there are any number of religious-indoctrination classes offered by respective faiths.

The First Amendment is crystal-clear when it comes to prohibiting state-sponsored religion. It is one thing to offer a moment of silence for prayer at the beginning of school and to celebrate the coming of religious holidays with decorations or to mention God in a generic sense in a Pledge of Allegiance. It is quite another to impose one’s religious doctrine on the taxpayer-funded learning process. Go home, Mrs. Young.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)