The Supreme Court, Globalization, and the Teaching of Religion

The Supreme Court, Globalization, and the Teaching of Religion by • September 1, 2006 • Printer-friendly

Tom LandessPublic figures talk about globalization as if it were the Rapture. We are told that, unlike Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus, we live in an era of international trade; so these days, we must worry more about what the world thinks and does. As Justice Sandra Day O’Connor told the Southern Center for International Studies, “No institution of government can afford any longer to ignore the rest of the world. One-third of our gross domestic product is internationally derived.”

Along the same lines, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in an address to the American Society of International Law: “Yes, we should approach foreign legal materials with sensitivity to our differences and deficiencies, but those differences and deficiencies, I believe, should not lead us to abandon the effort to learn what we can from the experience and good thinking foreign sources may convey.”

Justices Stevens, Breyer, Souter, and Kennedy have signaled their agreement. Indeed, in 1988, scholar Anthony Lester, writing in the Columbia Law Review, spoke of the then-emerging globalist court as “giving fresh meaning to the principles of the Bill of Rights.”

With the predisposition of these justices to learn from foreigners, shouldn’t they take a second look at the judicial prohibition against religion in our schools? Currently, the very presence of a Bible on a teacher’s desk is cause for alarm. School-bus drivers pounce on little girls telling their beads. Religious clubs are ordered off campuses. Recently, school authorities turned off a student’s microphone in the middle of her valedictory address because she was about to say the word “Chr–t.”

Are we following the lead of the rest of the world in this regard? Most people would answer, “Yes.” We like to hang out with European nations, and everyone knows Europeans have stopped going to church. They no longer believe in God. They certainly would not allow a religious thought to poke its nose into the classroom.

A quick survey of educational practices in European countries belies that assumption.

In Austria, religious education is “compulsory,” and, to a degree, the courses are unapologetically sectarian. According to the Austrian Press and Information Service, “78% of the Austrian population are Roman Catholics, while a further 5% are Protestants, most of them belonging to the Augsburg confession. About 4.5% belong to other groups while the remaining 9% are non-denominational and 3.5% provided no information.” APIS explains how the system works: “Religious education in Austrian schools is not restricted to the Roman Catholic confession: children belonging to smaller churches, and religious communities receive religious education in their own confession. Their teachers are paid by the State.”

The Roman Catholic Church trains Her religious teachers, and teachers from other faiths are trained in special academies, then examined by their respective religious bodies. So, in the Austrian system, all faiths are represented in the classroom.

Historically, Belgium has contained two large and distinct populations—one, culturally French; the other, culturally Dutch. For this reason, there are essentially two Belgian school systems: one for the French-speaking sector, one for the Dutch-speaking sector. Both systems require religious or ethical instruction as part of the curriculum. The Belgian government officially recognizes six religious categories: Catholics, Protestants, Anglicans, and Orthodox, as well as Jews and Muslims. Where sufficient support exists, these religious groups can request that the beliefs of their respective faiths be incorporated into the curriculum of local public schools. Thus, in Belgium, students may have a variety of choices in religious instruction; and, in some instances, the state actually funds the propagation of specific creeds. On the other hand, nonbelievers are accommodated by the provision of an alternative course in nonreligious ethics.

While we are at it, let’s look at Canada, whose culture is derived from Europe. In recent years, the Canadian government—in a lurch to the left—has appeared more and more hostile to religious values. The passage of a “hate crimes” bill prohibiting the criticism of homosexuality has alarmed some clergy, who fear they will be dragged from their pulpits if they read certain biblical passages. However, the law specifically exempts condemnation of homosexuality in religious discourse. Besides, Canada has a highly decentralized school system that the federal government does not control.

Until quite recently, Quebec, Newfoundland, and Ontario—three of Canada’s ten provinces—supported Roman Catholic education. In recent years, Newfoundland and Quebec have modified their systems, but Ontario still maintains publicly funded Catholic schools. In some respects, this system resembles practice in the early days of the United States, when some states had established churches.

In Finland, the law mandates that all children attend school for nine years. The system is divided into two levels of “comprehensive school”—a lower stage (grades one through six) and an upper stage (grades seven through nine). At both levels, students are required to take a course called Religion or Philosophy of Life.

Again, we see an accommodation to nonbelievers. Because Finland has a national church whose beliefs are taught in the public school, Finnish Freethinkers complained to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights about the “dominant role of the national religion in the curriculum of the history of religions.” That was in 1979. In response, the Finnish parliament passed legislation establishing the Philosophy of Life course restricted to pupils unattached to religious communities.

By law, French students must receive moral and civic instruction, as opposed to “religious” instruction. However, all types of schools—private as well as public, religious as well as secular—receive funding from the French government, though with an admonition that there be no religious discrimination. However, even sectarian instruction is permitted in some publicly funded schools (e.g., in Alsace-Moselle). Thus, while the French—in their highly centralized and micromanaged educational system—do not include religious instruction in the curriculum, they see nothing wrong with funding religious schools with state-collected taxes.

The German school system requires religious instruction at several levels. However, students who object to studying religion have the option of taking a course in ethics. Whether the teaching of religion is designed to present a body of knowledge or to build character, it is an integral part of German education. Religion stands side by side with social studies, history, geography, biology, chemistry, and other traditional disciplines.

Americans who object to any relationship between Church and state would be shocked by the “church tax,” a method of funding churches that exists in several European countries. This “tax” is actually a contribution by members to their respective churches—withheld from a worker’s paycheck along with income taxes or collected in prepayments from the self-employed. The amount of the church tax is calculated on the basis of income tax, with the government taking a cut for its collection services. Churches may choose to collect the taxes themselves if they so desire. About 70 percent of church revenues in Germany come from these taxes.

In many respects, Holland is the most libertine nation in Europe, and Amsterdam has replaced Paris and Hamburg as the most permissive city. The Dutch have legalized physician-assisted suicide and prostitution, lowered the age of consent almost to early adolescence, sanctified homosexual “marriage,” and allowed marijuana to thrive in its coffeehouses. Yet, like Germany and other European countries, she gives students the choice between religious education (either Protestant or Catholic) and an ethics course.

The Dutch government also funds religious schools. Its Ministry of Education and Science has stated that, in keeping with their constitution, “People have the right, and the opportunity, to found schools based on their own religious or other convictions, or on their own educational principles.” Lest anyone say that the Dutch system is like our own, consider what follows: “Under the terms of the Constitution, all schools are funded on an equal basis. In other words, the government funds public and private schools in the same way . . . The financial equality for similar kinds of schools irrespective of their denomination has produced an intricate network of legislation and regulations.”

Norwegians, like other Scandinavians, pay scant attention to religion. The average weekly church attendance in Norway is 5 percent, as opposed to 44 percent in the United States. Yet Norway has an established church—the Lutheran Church of Norway—and requires religious education in her schools. The Oslo Coalition on Freedom of Religion or Belief, a liberal group, describes the religious curriculum as follows: “Even though the subject shall provide knowledge about other religions as well as secular worldviews, it has a basic emphasis on knowledge about Christianity and the Christian cultural heritage of Norway.”

In Sweden, where four percent of the people attend church weekly, the government has been hostile to religion. In 2003, when a Pentecostal preacher in his pulpit described homosexuality as “abnormal, a horrible cancerous tumor in the body of society,” he was hauled into court, charged with inciting hatred based on sexual orientation, found guilty, and sentenced to one month in prison. (An appeals court reversed the decision.) Yet religion is taught in Swedish schools, though beyond the level where subjects are compulsory. Like the arts, another impractical discipline, it takes up the least number of hours; but it is still a part of the public-school curriculum and is offered in every program, including science, economics, and technology.

In Spanish schools, children are taught the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church. After all, 94 percent of the population is Catholic. However, parents are asked when they enroll their children in school if they wish to opt out of religious education. So the course is not required of everyone.

In Italy, religious education is mandated by the Italian Concordat of 1984, which states that all state schools must offer such courses. They consist largely of the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Religion is not a compulsory course, but between 93 and 96 percent enroll, perhaps because the Catholic population of Italy exceeds 97 percent.

After this cursory survey of religious education abroad, it is obvious that the United States is out of step with European practice, and probably more so than in areas the Supreme Court has cited to bolster recent majority opinions—for example, the legalization of homosexuality. Indeed, such organizations as the ACLU and People for the American Way seem almost reactionary in light of what’s going on in European education. So why have our justices refused to show the same deference to other more “progressive nations” when weighing the constitutionality of religion in public schools?

One argument immediately pops up, wagging its finger at those who would like to return God to the classroom: “In America, we have the First Amendment.” Well, several European nations have similar statements that are as legally binding as the Bill of Rights. Yet foreign courts see no contradiction between law and practice. Neither did U.S. courts for the better part of 200 years. Children recited prayers in school, listened sleepily to Bible readings each morning, and put on Christmas plays. Then the Age of Ideology overtook us, and we severed our ties with the past.

Will the activists on the Supreme Court follow their own advice and consult Europe the next time they decide a case involving the relationship between religion and education? More to the point, should concerned Americans try to introduce religion courses into the curricula of our public schools?

The answer to the first question is obvious: The present majority would never undermine Justice Brennan’s 1963 prayer decision or its subsequent expansion. In other cases where foreign law runs contrary to their inclination, these same justices ignore it. At American University, Justice Scalia made this point in a debate with Justice Breyer on the subject of foreign law. “[W]e are one of only six countries in the world that allow abortion on demand at any time prior to viability. Should we change that because other countries feel differently? . . . Or do we just use foreign law selectively?” By “we,” Justice Scalia means “they,” because he has never cited foreign legal sources in an opinion, unless you count English Common Law.

As for the second question—whether we should introduce European-style religious courses into American schools—would we want the current educational establishment to write the curriculum? If so, our children would be studying Wicca, Santeria, and the religious uses of peyote. As for the section on Christianity, it would deal primarily with the Inquisition and the Salem witch trials. We would be wise to live with the status quo until times change.

Too bad: The Europeans have it right this time. If approached properly, religion is a legitimate discipline, one that could be taught at almost any level in our public schools. It has its own set of facts, its own history, and its own way of perceiving reality. Like philosophy, you can study it without believing in it. And it has the relevance to everyday life that the pragmatists have called for in education. Religion is one of the most important forces in the shaping of society—any society. You cannot walk down the street of a town or city without seeing steeples, crosses, stars of David, hospitals, soup kitchens, and other reminders of its presence. Yet in America, children are forbidden to discuss it in school, as if it were either totally irrelevant or obscene.

This situation can be altered only by a different kind of Supreme Court—one willing to consider the intent of the Framers in drafting the First Amendment and to respect the long history of religious observances in the American public-school system. In examining both intent and history, another set of justices might also want to take a look at the law and practice in foreign countries. Such an approach might prove instructive.

The September 2006 issue of ChroniclesContributing editor Tom Landess is a retired English professor who has published a number of books and articles, a few of which have appeared under his name.

This article first appeared in the September 2006 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

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