School Vouchers, Parental Rights Movements Face Conflicting Interests

By David Trillo, guest writer

To many ardent church-state separation activists, and I am definitely ardent, opposition to tax-funded school vouchers for religious or parochial schools approaches an article of faith.  Separationists argue that tax aid to religious schools is a plain, flagrant violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, and may violate state and federal laws by funding institutions that practice religious or other forms of discrimination.

Voucher supporters tend to view such prohibitions as discriminatory against religion or violations of parental rights.

On August 12, Denver District Court Judge Michael Martinez saw the Douglas County Choice Scholarship Program through separationists’ eyes, ruling it unconstitutional.  The school district intends to appeal.

These surface issues that typically make the news, however, miss most of the action that raises deeper concern.  As is often the case when a political movement that normally tries to limit individual liberty takes sides with a “rights” cause, the explanation for the seemingly conflicting ideals begs an investigation.

School vouchers are often portrayed in the guise of parental rights.  The right of parents to direct the upbringing of their children has been the subject of ballot initiatives in several states as well as favorable Supreme Court rulings1, 2 that paved legal precedent for Constitutionally protecting a wide variety of unenumerated rights, including the divisive right to an abortion.

An amendment to the Constitution that reads, in part, “The liberty of parents to direct the upbringing and education of their children is a fundamental right1” looks like something that I could vigorously support.  An amendment that emphatically locks the government out of our family lives would appear to be a powerfully progressive tool.

Yet many of such an amendment’s strongest supporters come from Religious Right groups that openly express legislative goals such as “protecting marriage,” “strengthening the traditional family,” and “policy issues relevant to families from a foundation firmly established in a biblical worldview3” – words that clearly imply a governmental role in shaping and engineering family life.

If that puzzles you, the mystery will begin to disappear when we explore exactly what sort of tool its Religious Right advocates see in it.

A clue appears in a Focus on the Family web article4 that criticizes the American Library Association while downplaying Banned Books Week.  A quick guide5 page to parental rights articles at citizenlink.org links to it as well as to other pages, most of which object to various sexual issues.

One of the “parental rights” that it alleges is the right to “challenge,” i.e., request the removal of library books that a parent finds objectionable.  Dr. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, echoes this view, implying that public libraries somehow violate parental rights7 when they carry books that some parents find objectionable.

That raises a question.  If other parents demand that the library affords their children maximum access to the same kind of information, who wins?  Religious Right groups appear to believe that the parents demanding the limitations should win.

In addition, the Focus Citizen Link article4 asserts that parents should use their rights to demand that libraries carry, for example, anti-gay materials to balance out perceived pro-gay books.  (That sounds a lot like the old broadcast Fairness Doctrine.)  Ironically, the American Civil Liberties Union has recently sued a Missouri school district for censoring gay-supportive Web sites while allowing anti-gay sites13 – a policy supported by many “parental rights” advocates, at least as indicated by comments on accompanying news stories.

Another clue appears in a Parentalrights.org news alert concerning California Senate Bill 48, which involves teaching about the contributions of gay and lesbian Americans.  While the organization’s demand for parental opt-out rights appears sincere, it notes that, in the absence of an opt-out right, “there is no lesser recourse available than to change the entire curriculum for all.6

Citizen Link is more audacious, asserting that “same-sex marriage laws have directly undermined parental rights” by encouraging class discussion of “controversial sexual topics.10”  (That’s quite an about-face from Religious Right groups’ stances on teaching Intelligent Design alongside evolution, advocated on the grounds that schools should “teach the controversy.”)  Apparently, even other citizens’ marriage choices must step aside to prevent sparking classroom discussions that some parents would rather avoid.

There are, undoubtedly, millions of well-meaning Christian parents who sincerely want nothing more than a right to excuse their children from certain curriculum content.  But as evidenced above, some Religious Right groups view parental rights as a tool to deprive everyone’s children access to information that socially conservative parents find objectionable.  They envision a world in which the rights of “conservative” parents trump intellectual freedom, and can demand removal of “objectionable” library materials despite the wishes and rights of other parents who want no such limitation8.

But that is a recurring pattern in far right vernacular, where the words “rights” and “freedom” translate more accurately into “power.”

As I already mentioned, a Constitutional parental rights amendment feels very appealing to me.  But when you realize that Religious Right groups generally consider Antonin Scalia to be a model Supreme Court judge, and it was that same Antonin Scalia who opined that parents have no court-enforceable right to direct their children’s upbringing12 (Troxel v. Granville, 2000)11, I have some doubts whether “conservative” politicians would return me the favor if my parental stances clashed with their government policies.

What raises my suspicions is the fact that most high-profile parental rights advocates appear to assume that their primary beneficiaries are always conservative religious parents.

Parentalrights.org vigorously opposes the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child; one of their specific objections reads, “Children would have the ability to choose their own religion while parents would only have the authority to give their children advice about religion.9

It is odd that granting this right to a child would be objectionable; what if the child in question wanted to become a Christian, yet had stridently anti-religious parents?  Or in this time of fear of “Sharia Law,” what if a child of Muslims wanted to become a Christian?  Would they still side with the parents’ rights?  Or would the child’s religious freedom suddenly be worth defending?  The objection makes sense, however, if it is assumed that the parents who would enjoy these rights are always conservative Christian parents.

It’s also odd that Religious Right groups appear to support near-absolute parental rights, in light of their oft-stated desire to protect children and safeguard their innocence – almost a children’s-rights view in itself.  Again, it all makes perfect sense if it is assumed that only religious or social conservatives are morally qualified to be trusted with parental rights and act in the best interest of children.

This brings me back to school vouchers.  It’s curious, again, that Religious Right groups that support strong parental rights would also support government vouchers for private or religious schools, since many of these schools require, as a condition of admission, that parents surrender most or all of their rights while children are in the school’s custody.  Isn’t that exactly what they were fighting against?

The school voucher and parental rights arguments put forth today are undeveloped, founded in inconsistent and contradictory premises, and are therefore difficult to put together into a coherent ideological or political model.  Implementing either vouchers or parental rights amendments now would certainly have many consequences that their proponents never intended – or might even deeply regret.

To the eyes of a fair and impartial federal judge, a Parental Rights Amendment would not deliver what many of its backers think it would.  Moreover, parental rights are not, in themselves, adversarial in nature to children’s rights.  In the hands of a judge appointed because of his or her sympathy to Religious Right causes, however, the new amendment could likely be applied pursuant to its evident intent which – as often seems to happen – appears to be quite opposite what its enticing words say.

The puzzle pieces, as they seem to fit, tell me that “Parental rights” are apparently intended to mean “special powers for socially conservative parents.”  And school vouchers are merely a temporary shelter from public schools that are considered hostile to faith.  If unrestricted school vouchers for religious schools became freely available, I doubt that the campaigns to stock public school boards with “conservatives” would stop.  Efforts to elect Religious Right majorities to school boards would continue unabated.

On the other hand, if you’re one of the millions who merely want the government to butt out of your parenting, then you might in fact have more in common with me: I share that goal of limiting the government’s involvement in our personal living choices as well.

References:

  1. Parentalrights.org, The Annotated [Parental Rights] Amendment, http://www.parentalrights.org/index.asp?Type=B_BASIC&SEC={E7900CE9-7AE0-47B3-81F6-CC16B7CAA8A0}
  2. Parentalrights.org,  Parental Rights Doctrine, http://parentalrights.org/index.asp?Type=B_BASIC&SEC={3051ABFF-B614-46E4-A2FB-0561A425335A}
  3. About Us, Citizen Link, a Focus on the Family affiliate, citizenlink.org, http://www.citizenlink.com/about-us/
  4. Citizen Link, “The Truth About Banned Books Week,” Citizen Link, a Focus on the Family affiliate, citizenlink.org, http://www.citizenlink.com/2010/09/28/the-truth-about-banned-books-week/
  5. Citizen Link, “Quick Guide: Articles on Parental Rights in Schools,” Citizen Link, a Focus on the Family affiliate, citizenlink.org, http://www.citizenlink.com/2011/04/28/quick-guide-articles-on-parental-rights-in-schools/
  6. Parentalrights.org,  “Whatever Schools Teach, Parents Have No Rights,” http://parentalrights.org/index.asp?Type=B_BASIC&SEC={9B1459E6-8710-4884-B9E7-C4D53CE8278B}
  7. Dr. Albert Mohler, “Banned Book Week – Parenting at the Mercy of the Local Librarian,” albertmohler.com, http://www.albertmohler.com/2009/10/01/banned-book-week-%E2%80%93-parenting-at-the-mercy-of-the-local-librarian/
  8. Alysse ElHage, “The ‘Right’ to Read: Should Intellectual Freedom Trump Parental Rights in Libraries?,” North Carolina Family Policy Council, http://www.ncfpc.org/FNC/0811SF.html
  9. Parentalrights.org, “20 Things You Need to Know about the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child,” http://www.parentalrights.org/vertical/Sites/%7BC49108C5-0630-467E-9B9B-B1FA31A72320%7D/uploads/%7BD9F69482-C92B-4BB2-A291-06CBA2B9CF69%7D.PDF
  10. Candi Cushman, “Parental-Rights Backlash Is Brewing,” Citizen Link, http://www.citizenlink.com/2010/04/26/parental-rights-backlash-is-brewing/
  11. Troxel v. Granville (2000), Supreme Court of the United States, http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/99-138.ZS.html
  12. Antonin Scalia, Troxel v. Granville (2000), Supreme Court of the United States, http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/99-138.ZD1.html
  13. Suzanne Ito, “ACLU Sues Missouri School District for Illegally Censoring LGBT Websites,” aclu.org, http://www.aclu.org/blog/free-speech-lgbt-rights/aclu-sues-missouri-school-district-illegally-censoring-lgbt-websites

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