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Editorial columns

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Vouchers fortify church-state wall

In its unanimous decision saying school vouchers are constitutional in Indiana, the state Supreme Court dis- cussed several times how the Indiana constitution places the legislature’s duty to provide for public schools in the context of encouraging “moral … improvement.”

In short, Indiana’s constitution shows its framers believed education is linked with morality.

This is true, and it’s almost exactly opposite of what many people now think about education, and a central reason some oppose the state’s vouchers, because vouchers let some students use public money to obtain a religious education.

These people forget public schools also provide a religious education.

Many Americans believe public schools are neutral about religion.

That’s not only wrong, it’s impossible.

In 1961’s McGowan vs. Maryland, the U.S. Supreme Court described religion as an “activity that profoundly relates the life of man to the world in which he lives.” Every school helps children understand their universe and place in it.

If it did not, we would not consider it much of a school. And every school teaches students morals and politics, which is the same as saying all schools teach students about God and man.

Consider an example. The dominant teaching philosophy for the past 60 years or so goes by various names, but a descriptive one is “child-centered learning.” It aims for student-led, not teacher-led, classrooms, which is why, among other things, you almost never see desks in rows anymore, but rather in circles or scattered, to emphasize that children are driving their educations.

This arrangement reflects assumptions about human nature, which is at root a religious consideration. It assumes, contrary to most major religions, that children are naturally good and wise enough to direct their own learning.

Here’s another example. Many people think religious controversies in schools can be solved by schools avoiding God altogether.

All that does is establish preference for atheism or agnosticism over every religion whose adherents believe God exists.

Although atheists like to say they don’t adhere to a religion, their philosophy makes claims about God’s existence and what that means for people, and it directly contradicts the religious claims of every other major religion.

As for attempting to treat all religions equally: If schools attempted to do that on every single topic in which religions have differing viewpoints, it would subsume the entire curriculum.

For example, does a history or government curriculum discuss Moses’ contributions to modern understandings of the rule of law? Why or why not? What do we learn about the Crusades, the Inquisition, and how the Mideast became majority-Muslim?

If students ask what is the point of learning, anyway – does the teacher say it’s to get a job? To please ourselves?

The question is not whether schools will promote morality and religion with taxpayer dollars but how and which they will. Vouchers do not change that. They just give parents the freedom to ensure their children’s schools won’t undermine their efforts to hand their religious beliefs down to their children.

Indiana’s Supreme Court has unanimously recognized the same thing the U.S. Supreme Court did in 2002: Parents, not government, have a right to choose which ethical code will permeate their children’s educations.

When the state allows them this choice rather than confining children to only the moral education public schools promote, it is merely ending its preference for one religion over another.

That’s why people like me, who want separation of church and state and freedom of religion, hail the voucher ruling.

Joy Pullmann is a Fort Wayne resident and an education research fellow at The Heartland Institute. She wrote this for The Journal Gazette.

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