Religion and school doesn’t mix

In the United States, the topic of religion and its role in relation to secular institutions remains a highly contentious issue. Today, the Christian faith is virtually a prerequisite for public office. The Ten Commandments have been placed on several government properties and has even been judged as constitutional in at least one case. Indeed, many Americans are as religious as they are patriotic. Thankfully, there is comparably less religious zeal up north.

Nevertheless, over the years we have seen the U.S. take great strides towards greater separation of church and state. For instance, creationism, and its poorly disguised doppelganger, intelligent design, have met their demise in court. The hope of some that their religious beliefs will someday be taught in science classes of public schools has all but disintegrated.

No doubt this has been because of the careful application of the “Lemon test,” which came about from a notable court case that struck down a program that supplemented the salaries of teachers in religious-based private schools. This test describes the requirements for legislation concerning religion, mandating the government’s action: it must have a secular legislative purpose, must not have the primary effect of either advancing or inhibiting religion and must not result in an “excessive government entanglement” with religion. If any of these requirements are violated, the government’s action is deemed unconstitutional.

So far it has been mostly good news. Unfortunately, in the much more secular United Kingdom one-third of all public schools funded by public tax dollars are faith-based schools. Given the opportunity to reform the education system, the previous government of Tony Blair decided to expand faith schools for minority faiths rather than abolish them altogether. This is something that may have happened in Ontario had former Progressive Conservative Party leader John Tory become premier, but fortunately it was one of the main causes of his defeat.

But, I digress. Many of these faith schools require the parents of the attending child to be practicing members of the given religion. The result of this is that parents who are of a different faith or who have no faith are effectively discriminated against. Some parents have gone as far as to pretend to be Catholic or Anglican by going to church every Sunday and making good with the priest or pastor in order to secure placement in a local faith-based school. They are essentially forced to do this because regular public schools are sometimes too far away and are deteriorating in quality.

What is even more disturbing is the curriculum in some of these schools. I know religions like to and need to trap and manipulate children while they are young, but doing this with public tax dollars is just ridiculous. At Yavneh College, a Jewish school in Hertfordshire, more time is dedicated to religion than to science in the classroom. All public schools are required to teach the same science curriculum, however, these faith schools are free to “supplement” it with their religious interpretation unchecked by the government. So in Richard Dawkin’s documentary “Faith Schools Menace,” when he came to talk to a science teacher at a Muslim high school it was found out that she did not even have a basic grasp of evolution.

It is often said that the American education system is in ruins. Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. But at least they had the intelligence to keep religion out of schools. The U.K., although part of secular Europe, has not been as wise. Their program of inclusivity to minority religions within a religious schools framework has actually led to segregation of many of its children. It was said by one of the interviewees in Richard Dawkins’ documentary that it is deeply tragic to separate oneself off from the rest of humanity like that. I could not agree more.