Teachers in public school classrooms sometimes recite a Christian prayer or voice explicitly religious sentiments. Public school teachers aren’t supposed to do this. It violates the separation of church and state. But some teachers nonetheless view it as their religious obligation to spread their personal faith to children. When a parent objects to the teacher’s conduct, school officials typically instruct the teacher to stop proselytizing in the classroom. Zealous defenders of the teacher inevitably cry out that school officials are stifling the teacher’s free speech.
As this example illustrates, many Americans fail to grasp that free speech is a right belonging to private citizens, not a right belonging to persons operating in their role as government representatives. Church-state separation is based on the familiar concept that there’s a proper time and place for different activities. It seems like an easy concept to understand. After all, a similar concept is played out in most workplaces. For instance, a private citizen has a right to keep a pet boa constrictor. But that same citizen may not be permitted to bring her boa constrictor into the seafood restaurant where she works.
Let me give another example of a simple distinction that many believers fail to understand. Parents have a right to teach their children what the parents believe about God. Essentially no one questions this well-established right. But there are restrictions on this right.
For instance, if parents were teaching their adolescent son that he has a right to sexually assault girls who belong to an “infidel” religion, the police and courts would likely intervene. Such bizarre exceptions aside, virtually no one questions the right of parents to provide religious instruction to their children.
I would suggest that there is another legitimate restriction on the right of parents to religiously indoctrinate their children. This restriction may seem controversial. Let me start by stating it as succinctly as possible. Parents must not be permitted to deprive their children access to any established scientific consensus. For example, parents have a right to teach their child that evolution is false, but parents cannot restrict the child’s access to a modern education concerning evolution.
I foresee several objections to my position. The first objection is that this allows the school to override the parent’s teachings. No, it doesn’t. If you think that it does, then you haven’t understood what I said.
The school must never be permitted to compel the child to accept the truth of evolutionary theory. The child’s personal or religious beliefs lie beyond the purview of the school. The sole responsibility of the school is to ensure that the child demonstrates knowledge of the scientific consensus. The child is to be made familiar with what science teaches; the child is not required to assent to the correctness of what science teaches.
The second objection that I foresee is that exposing children to scientific information contrary to their parent’s religion will outrage parents. Let me be blunt. This objection is morally depraved. Suppose a parent teaches their child that smoking cigarettes is good for their health. Would we insist that the child be provided with accurate scientific information about smoking or would we back off for fear of upsetting the parent? Even if the parent sincerely believes that smoking is a healthful activity, that does not relieve us of the responsibility to give the child the best scientific information available on the topic.
The third objection that I foresee is that forcing students to listen to lectures or read books that contradict their religious upbringing infringes on the child’s religious freedom. This objection would have merit if I advocated teaching children that their religion was wrong. But, as I said earlier, no child is being forced to either sign onto what science teaches or denounce their faith. All the child is required to do is demonstrate comprehension of the scientific consensus.
A parent might object that the child is too young to understand that the school is teaching about the scientific consensus, not compelling the child to embrace that consensus. Presumably these parents would also argue that their child is too young to understand the following sentence: “I think it is going to rain tomorrow but Sam thinks it is not, and you should believe me rather than Sam.” The real irony is that many of these same parents don’t hesitate to instruct their elementary school kids about the Trinity.
Finally, there’s one more potential objection I need to address. It might be said that I’m making a mountain out of a molehill. After all, science documentaries are available every night on television or the Internet. Why worry about making sure no young student is left behind? They can catch up later, when they grow up and buy their own television or computer.
We might as well ask why we should worry whether children eat healthy meals. After all, they can eat healthy once they grow up and can buy their own groceries.
Let’s be real. A child deprived of a proper diet may be handicapped as an adult. The child’s brain could suffer damage from malnutrition. She may be so impaired that she cannot be gainfully employed, and therefore she has inadequate money to spend on healthy food at the grocery store. Moreover, by the time she reaches adulthood she may have acquired unhealthy dietary habits that can never be broken.
All these consequences are precisely echoed in the child who is deprived of an adequate science education. The child’s brain, deprived of intellectual nutrition, is prevented from developing fully. This will likely have permanent effects. In fact, the effects will likely propagate through generations.
Parental rights are vitally important. Those rights include the right to teach religion to their children. But parental rights come with some limitations. Parents must not be permitted to deprive their children access to any established scientific consensus.