Religious Liberty: The Civil Rights Issue of Our Time

I am currently reading William Barr’s book One Damn Thing After Another: Memoirs of an Attorney General. Barr served as Attorney General first under President George H. W. Bush from 1991-1993, and then again under President Donald Trump from 2019-2020. I’ve not finished the book yet, but so far, it’s an excellent read and I recommend it. Barr offers a balanced perspective to his years in government service (which include far more than his service as Attorney General) and, while I don’t agree with him on everything (he is pro-capital punishment), I think he offers genuine wisdom on a number of fronts, particularly on issues of great controversy facing our nation.

One of those issues is religious liberty, to which Barr dedicates an entire chapter of his book and which he identifies as “the civil rights issue of our time.” Barr writes:

“President Biden has repeatedly said that transexual rights are ‘the civil rights issue of our time.’ I disagree. I believe the civil rights issue of our time is our religious liberty enshrined in the Free Exercise Clause and Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. These are the right to exercise one’s religion unburdened by the government, and the right to be free from the impositions that would arise from the government’s establishment of a particular religion or, for that matter, from its establishment of irreligion. I say religious liberty is paramount today because, as the Framers understood well, our system of broad personal liberties and limited government presupposes a robust and free religious sphere, and today this foundational freedom is under unprecedented assault.”

In Barr’s view, the most important front in the battle for religious liberty is in the area of education. The right of parents to pass on their religious convictions to their children is a sacred right, and the presumption of the government to interfere with that right Barr calls a “monstrous invasion of religious liberty.” Yet, that is exactly where the frontlines of the battle for religious liberty are being fought. “The fight is being waged on three fronts,” Barr writes, “all of which involve attempts to constrain or sabotage the ability of families to inculcate religious beliefs to their children.”

The first “front” is the effort of the government to deny available funds to religious schools, which Barr sees as motivated by a desire for parents to choose government schools rather than religious schools. Barr gives the example of Blaine amendments that were first adopted in the 19th century and inspired by anti-Catholic sentiments. Blaine amendments ban state funds from being extended to religious schools, even when they are made available to public schools and private schools. Barr dedicated himself to fighting these amendments during his tenure as AG. One example of a fight he took on was in Montana. Montana offered tax credits to citizens who donated to a scholarship fund that would offer funds to underprivileged students. The students could use those funds to help defray the cost of a private school they would like to attend. But when three families attempted to use their scholarships to attend a Christian school, Montana courts blocked their plans based on the state’s Blaine amendment. The Montana Supreme Court actually instructed the state to dispense with the scholarship program (thereby hurting all the children participating) rather than allow scholarship money to be used for religious schools. Barr fought this decision and won in the U. S. Supreme Court, which ruled that Montana’s policy discriminated against religion.

The second front of attack on religious schools is the states’ efforts to determine who may teach in these schools. Discrimination laws are the modus operandi by which the states have tried to force schools to employ staff who publicly oppose the religious mission of the schools. In a 2012 case that became pretty famous, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled, in a 9-0 decision, that the government cannot overturn a church’s decision on who can act as a minister of that church. School staff, Hosanna-Tabor argued, are ministers of the church, and the government cannot tell them who to hire as a minister. The Court agreed. But the Court left unanswered who qualified as a minister. In the 2020 case of Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, the state argued that only those who have theological training or held the title of minister were entitled to the “ministerial exception” to government employment laws. When two staffers sued Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic School for discrimination, they argued that they were not “ministers” since they didn’t teach religion and had no theological training, so the ministerial exemption didn’t apply to them. Barr argued that this didn’t matter. What mattered was that the staffers worked for the school and, therefore, the school had a reasonable expectation that they would respect the religious message of the school and participate in the religious mission of the school. Again, the U. S. Supreme Court agreed with Barr that the staffers carried out a religious function, “namely, ‘educating their students in the Catholic faith and guiding their students to live their lives in accordance with that faith.”

Barr identifies the third front of attack on religious schools as the most dangerous: the efforts of the government to impose curricula on religious schools of a secular progressive nature, essentially forcing religious schools to teach what is contrary to their faith. Barr goes into an extended history of the relationship between public schools and religion. I won’t do that here. You can read the book, and I encourage you to do so! The bottom line is, since the Obama administration, individual states or school districts have abandoned any attempt to be religiously neutral and have adopted a strategy to require religious schools to teach a radical secular agenda that includes acceptance of principles that Barr says are, “premised on ideas about the nature of man, the universe, man’s duties, and the purpose of life that are a substitute for, and subversive of, a religious outlook, especially the traditional Judeo-Christian worldview.” These include mandated LGBTQ curricula and the ratification of Critical Race Theory. An example of this was in the news just this week. The Somerville Public School Committee in Massachusetts denied the application of Real Life Learning Center (RLLC), a school run by Vida Real Church, because the school board members disagreed with the religious convictions of the church on creation and homosexuality. According to complaints by Vida Real Church, the committee delayed consideration of their application for several months, insisted that the application was incomplete when it was not, and demanded that the church answer 35 questions the church considered “hostile,” including questioning whether RLLC could fulfill their mission of teaching their students because of its religious beliefs. Justin Butterfield, representing Vida Real Church and RLLC, said, “The hostility displayed by the Somerville Public School Committee is outrageous. The government cannot ban a religious school because they disagree with its religious beliefs. Doing so violates federal constitutional and statutory law.” After receiving a letter from RLLC’s attorneys listing their complaints, the Somerville Committee approved RLLC’s application.

Barr believes that, given the heterogeneous nature of religious life in America now, the days are gone when public schools can hope to be neutral when it comes to religion. Attempts at neutrality resulted, first, in an effort to simply remove any hint of religion from public schools – an unsatisfying solution in my opinion – to the current state of affairs where too many states are attempting to force public and even religious schools to adopt a secular progressive agenda hostile and contrary to faith and even to the founding principles of the United States. As well, too many schools have foundered in their mission to teach well their students so to prepare them to succeed as adults. This is especially true of students trapped in failing schools in low-income neighborhoods. Barr’s solution is, rather than extend funding for education to the schools, extend that funding to the parents of the students and let the parents choose where they want their children to go to school. In this way, Barr writes, “the purchasing power needed for a quality education would be put in the hands of each family by giving every student an educational voucher to be spent at a school of choice. The state’s interest in ensuring that a certain level of basic skills is taught can be met by accreditation standards, but the government’s ability to dictate the content of curriculum beyond this point would be severely curtailed. … This would not only be the most efficient way of providing publicly funded education, but also I believe we may well have reached the point that it is the only way it can be provided without trenching on the religious liberties of families.”

Barr’s analysis of the problem of religious liberty and the schools is dead on, and his solution is thoughtful and workable. Of course, the teacher’s unions will oppose it with all the energy they can muster because it means their monopoly on the public funding of education would be over, and they would have to compete with private and religious schools for the devotion of parents and their children, a competition they would likely lose in many cases. That monopoly is the root of many of the problems with public schools. Too many public schools long ago abandoned their commitment to excellence in education, which is why, I think, they’ve adopted the new mission of indoctrinating their students in political, social, and cultural narratives. Many politicians would oppose Barr’s solution, also, because they receive substantial support from the teacher’s unions. Barr shares an abominable example of the hypocrisy of the elites on just this matter. When Obama became president, there was a scholarship program in Washington, DC, funded publicly, that allowed low-income students to attend the school of their choice, whether public, private, or religious. It was a great success, with high graduation rates. But Obama, bowing to the demands of the teacher’s unions, downsized the program – while he enrolled his two daughters in an exclusive private school in Washington. This goes to show that Obama, and I believe most politicians and the teacher’s unions, don’t give a hoot about the quality of education for public school students. If they did, they would be champions of school choice. As it is, they would rather students suffer the consequences of a poor education in often unsafe schools if it means they maintain their hold on power and privilege.

This is one reason why Catholics must support Catholic schools, making sure they remain excellent institutions, both academically and spiritually. This isn’t an easy task. Many Catholic schools have either acquiesced or embraced enthusiastically the moral agenda of the secularists. Many are Catholic in name only. This cannot stand, and bishops and religious orders, as well as parents and alumni, must speak up and stand up for the quality of Catholic schools before their demise is too far along to rescue. Cases have occurred where schools have preferred to continue their embrace of a morality contrary to Catholic teaching, even when the consequence is the bishop revoking their Catholic identity. Cases have occurred where parents and students have protested attempts by bishops or religious orders to inculcate Catholic schools with Catholic moral teaching, demanding that the school adopt the secular moral agenda. Be that as it may. If it means Catholic schools officially losing their Catholic designation, or even closing, that will have to be. What cannot be – what cannot ever be – is a Catholic school embracing wholeheartedly a secular moral agenda, teaching and encouraging a secular moral agenda, without consequence. That would be a rejection of the gospel itself and of the responsibility of the Church to proclaim the gospel faithfully.

Of course, true Catholic education begins in the home. It is the responsibility of Catholic parents to educate their children in the faith, and that certainly means more than simply sending them to Catholic school. It means creating a foundation of faith in the home, where the faith is lived consciously and considerately and openly. If that is the case, it will be a priority for families to find a school and support a school that is dedicated to the truth of Catholic faith and morals and to forming the children under their charge into the best they can be.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

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