Can a Religious School Still Be Religious?

February 28, 2019

What is a religious school?

The answer may seem obvious, but in light of recent events, the question is worthy of deeper consideration.

After a two-year sabbatical, Second Lady Karen Pence recently announced she would return to her teaching position at Immanuel Christian School in Springfield, Virginia. The news generated immediate controversy when the school’s policies mandating a scriptural view of marriage and sexuality were denounced by the media. 

Some pundits focused on “exposing” Christian schools. But what is there to expose? That a religious school desires to pass on its most fundamental beliefs to its students?

I grew up on the outskirts of New Orleans. Catholic roots run deep in my family, with about half of my family Catholic and the other half Protestant. I attended Catholic catechism classes because it was the “in” thing that would get me out of the house with my friends who attended the Catholic school near my neighborhood. Though my encounter with the risen Jesus and subsequent Christian life have taken place within a Protestant context, the presence of this Catholic parish and school contributed to the well-being of my community, even for those of us outside the fold.

Immanuel’s website lays out its core values for all to see. Near the top is the following statement: “We believe that all truth is God’s truth and that Scripture, the revealed Word of God, must be taught as truth.”

A religious school strives to pass on its faith through the spiritual and educational formation of children. Religious schools in the United States are privately-funded alternatives to public schools and aim to inculcate the values of their religion. It should be no surprise that in many of these schools, staff and students are expected to reflect those values in belief and behavior.

In fact, many parents pay to send their children to religious schools precisely because they want them to learn and grow in a particular religious and moral environment. To undermine the freedom and integrity of religious schools unduly limits the freedom these families are guaranteed by the free exercise provision of the First Amendment. If parents disagree with a school’s moral code, they have the freedom to send their children elsewhere. 

So, of course, a Christian school will promote Christian morality. A Muslim school will promote the teachings of the Koran. Christians, Muslims, Jews, and other religious groups may create faith-based schools open to all-comers, but those who attend will do so voluntarily, understanding that the school will teach the religious tenets it exists to impart. Not every family will welcome the religiously-based standards of every school.  

The attacks on Karen Pence and Immanuel Christian School are attacks on religious freedom, and they are becoming alarmingly routine. Religious organizations of every stripe, from churches to clubs to social service organizations, are regularly accused of discrimination and bigotry… for nothing more than being faithful to their most fundamental beliefs.

America’s protection of religious freedom is two-pronged. Not only does the First Amendment protect free exercise of religion, it also bans the establishment of a state religion and prohibits government interference in religious belief and practice. Accordingly, a public entity like a state-funded school cannot mandate that staff or students adhere to a particular religious code. A religious organization, as a private entity, has the right to advance its own beliefs. Such a right lies at the heart of pluralism. It has driven the most vigorous civil society in history, and has always been foundational to America.

One often hears the objection at this point that no right is absolute, not even America’s first freedom. It is indeed true that the right to free exercise of religion has limits. Policies like the one at Immanuel, however, come nowhere near them.

Marriage and sexuality are core features of human life and tend to be matters of deep religious conviction. That a religious institution would take its faith seriously in setting standards for related beliefs and behavior may be offensive to many Americans, but persuasion, not intimidation or coercion, should mark their response.

I recently signed onto the American Charter of Freedom of Religion and Conscience, which offers much wisdom for our present moment. Calling for a renewal of the virtue of civility, the Charter encourages “all people of good will to take the risk of striving to understand and respect their fellow citizens, especially those with whom they disagree.” Disagreements among Americans on fundamental issues are real and significant, but expressions of outrage like those endured recently by Mrs. Pence and Immanuel Christian School will have no place in actually resolving them.

Our country’s greatness rests on our freedom to live and work out our own salvation based on our most deeply held beliefs. We must never lose sight of the true value and meaning of diversity, both individual and institutional. Rightly understood, diversity is undermined when freedom is unnecessarily restricted. My Christian faith and pastoral experience lead me to defend those who are being targeted through public intimidation or government intervention merely for living consistent with their religious convictions. I believe God’s unyielding grace is available to all of us—let us offer some grace to one another, especially in moments of intense disagreement.