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Whose values in education?

A controversy in Maine over education funding shows that schools can never be neutral


Bangor Christian Schools in Bangor, Maine Bangor Christian Schools

Whose values in education?
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American public education often celebrates diversity. But it doesn’t always coexist easily with a diversity of views. Ongoing litigation in Maine is merely the latest iteration of a series of controversies in the Pine Tree State. And that, in turn, points us back to deeper and more fundamental tensions in the history of American education.

Maine is a largely rural state. The sparse population can make education a challenge, for it’s not always easy for local public schools to serve a population spread out over a rural district. One solution Maine has long offered is to provide public funding for parents to send their children to local private schools of their choosing.

But that funding came with some conditions. For years, one of the conditions was that the funds could not go to a “sectarian” school—a religious school. Rural parents who qualified under Maine’s tuition programs could choose any private school and get their tuition dollars paid by the state—as long as the school was not religious.

Parents challenged Maine’s discrimination against religion as a violation of the First Amendment. When their case reached the Supreme Court two years ago, the Court agreed with the parents. If Maine was going to reimburse private school tuition, it couldn’t discriminate against religious schools, or the choices of parents to select religious schools, in the process.

While this case was pending at the Supreme Court, Maine’s legislature came up with some new conditions on public funding for private schools. They were packaged as nondiscrimination rules. A school cannot receive public funding if it discriminates on the basis of race, color, ancestry, national origin, sex, religion, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Predictably, the reference to sexual orientation and gender identity presents problems for many religious schools.

Crosspoint Church in Bangor, Maine, operates a Christian school. Based on its understanding of the Bible, the church and school affirm that sex is reserved for marriage, marriage is defined as between a man and a woman, and that gender is “established by God’s design.” That makes the school ineligible to participate in the state’s tuition reimbursement programs.

So has Maine found the end-run around the Supreme Court’s earlier decision? Maybe it’s not OK to discriminate against religion directly, but could it be fine to cut religious schools out by requiring them to do what’s contrary to their beliefs? Something about this seems dubious. The school is litigating this now. In the first round, it failed to persuade a federal court in Maine to issue a preliminary injunction against the state. But the litigation is far from over and the school has some strong arguments.

There will be—always has been—controversy about what is taught in public schools when the public itself is diverse and pluralistic rather than unified and cohesive.

The saga of Christian schools in Maine points to a longstanding tension in American educational theory. Can the public fund education without forcing some people to support what they don’t believe? The standard American public-school model goes back to the older idea of a common school. They were common in that they were available to all—a single source of education for children. Thomas Jefferson was just one of many American thinkers who believed that the unified public school system would help to create a unified and cohesive American public.

But the flipside is that there will be—always has been—controversy about what is taught in public schools when the public itself is diverse and pluralistic rather than unified and cohesive. Public schools are funded by the public. Taxpayers representing a potentially wide spectrum of views in a community pay for a school that can’t represent all of those views.

All of this current controversy around schools (then and now) should be expected. Education is always formative. It shapes and trains developing minds. It is always informed by values at some level. Every choice about what to teach and what not to teach is itself a part of education in a particular set of values. A school may instruct children in religion. Or it may not. But either way, it cannot help sending a message—for instance, that religion is important, or that religion is not important.

Ironically, Maine now sees nondiscrimination wielded by both sides of this lawsuit. The state says nondiscrimination (on the basis of sexual orientation, for instance) is one of its fundamental values that it must inculcate into anyone that it’s paying to educate in the state. The Christian school in Bangor says that this is discriminating against the school’s religious commitments. There’s no way around it: Someone will end up offended by the end result, whatever it is. As I’ve explained at more length in prior writings, there’s no truly neutral position on education—or about religion.

Realizing that schools are not and never can be neutral, that there’s no way the common school will please everyone, may be the first step towards a more honest pluralism in American education. As Christians, we can be frank in admitting that we want our religious views to affect our education. The state wants to do the same. But the state can’t silence what it sees as discriminatory views without practicing its own form of discrimination.


Lael Weinberger

Lael Weinberger is a lawyer and historian. He is a fellow of the Constitutional Law Center at Stanford Law School.


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