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When the Education System Puts Christians on the Spot

Kenneth Whitehead Assess Conflicts, Suggests Alternatives

WASHINGTON, D.C., JUNE 25, 2004 (Zenit) - It may be time for committed Christians to think more seriously about establishing their own schools or joining the growing home-schooling movement.

So says Kenneth Whitehead, a former U.S. assistant secretary of education and author of "One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic" (Ignatius).

Whitehead shared with us why it may be necessary for Catholics to look for educational alternatives in the face of the increasing conflicts among the courts, Christians and federally funded schools, and the growing moral corruption of our times.

Q: In an Orange County school district recently, three Christian school trustees voted not to revise the district's anti-discrimination policy to adhere to a California law that requires all public school districts to protect certain groups from discrimination, including transsexuals and others who do not embrace traditional gender roles. Eventually, the policy was revised so that it was satisfactory to the state and the dissenting board members. In this instance, do Christians have a primary duty to act according to their faith rather than according to secular law?

Whitehead: In matters of conscience Christians do have a primary duty to act according to their faith rather than according to secular law. Acts 5:29 states: "We must obey God rather than men."

In the case described here, it would seem that being required to recognize that a disordered condition such as the condition that "transsexuals" have chosen for themselves belongs in a distinct category entitled to the special protection of anti-discrimination laws. Such a requirement could well violate a well-formed Christian conscience, and hence a vote against it would be correct and proper.

In the present case, it is good that the Christian trustees were able to reach an agreement with the school district. But if they had been strictly required by law to uphold the California anti-discrimination statute, and if they had failed to do so on the basis of their consciences, they would have to be prepared to suffer whatever penalty exists under the law for their failure to fulfill their legal obligations, just as protesters against unjust racial discrimination had to be prepared to pay the existing legal penalties for civil disobedience as long as these remained in force.

Christians are not entitled to break or contravene laws just because those laws are immoral or unjust. They are only able and obliged -- in a democracy -- to work to try to change such laws.

In the case described, if these trustees were indeed legally required to recognize transsexuals as belonging to a special, protected legal category, I believe it might be time for them to consider resigning as public school trustees. They owe nothing to a school system that requires the violation of their consciences.

People today often talk as if the public schools were part of the nature of things, and that they simply have to be supported, whatever the problems or costs. But this is not true.

In the 19th century, when Catholics realized that the public schools then in the process of being established were, in reality, not religiously neutral, but were thinly disguised "Protestant" schools, Catholics abandoned these schools and established their own school system.

In view of the growing moral corruption and decadence in so many sectors of society, including now in the public schools, it may be time for committed Christians to think more seriously either about establishing their own schools or joining the growing home-schooling movement.

Q: A Christian Canadian medical student lost three successive appeals on a failing grade for his refusal to perform or refer for any abortion procedure. Recently, he was reinstated in good standing shortly before his graduation. How does a school's action such as this endanger Christians' rights to religious expression, practice and belief?

Whitehead: This case illustrates, precisely, how moral corruption has more and more entered into the institutions of our society.

In the United States, school policies that would penalize a medical student for conscientious objection to abortion would, on their face, seem to contradict the First Amendment to the Constitution, which is supposed to guarantee the free exercise of religion, including decisions concerning questions of moral conscience.

However, successive court decisions, especially those extending anti-discrimination measures to wider categories of people -- including some living in openly immoral lifestyles -- have progressively weakened the force of the First Amendment to the point that, today, it no longer effectively protects the consciences of Christians.

Increasingly, Christians are threatened with actual coercion if they are unable to go along with today's bold rejection of the traditional moral law.

Q: Considering recent prohibition of government scholarships for theology majors, the government seems to be pulling back from subsidizing religious-oriented education. How do you see these funding cuts?

Whitehead: Denial to theology students alone of government scholarships otherwise available across the board to everyone else is, from one point of view, an obvious injustice, and represents yet another government encroachment on the freedom of religion.

From a Christian point of view, however, there is no compelling reason why the government should be expected to subsidize religion at all, including through scholarships to study theology. Nor do I believe that we should even want the government to be involved in deciding what is, and what is not, a "valid" religious question.

Q: Where do you think religious education is heading? Will it be more balkanized? More isolated from the mainstream of America?

Whitehead: As implied in the answer to the previous question, religious education should not be a matter falling within the purview of the government at all.

Religious people should be allowed to believe and act according to their convictions and consciences without interference from the government or the courts. That is what religious freedom means.

This is certainly the teaching of the Second Vatican Council in its declaration on religious liberty, "Dignitatis Humanae." The dignity of the human person requires that he be free from coercion in matters of religious belief and moral conscience.

Originally this was assumed to be the case in the U.S. Constitution and legal system as well. But it is being steadily undermined today because of some of the moral directions in which our society is headed.

Increasingly, government and court actions require special recognition of, and giving special protection to, individuals and groups that espouse and practice what in Christian teaching is considered immoral.

These initiatives need to be resisted using every avenue available in our (still) democratic system. If and when the day arrives that such resistance is no longer possible, democracy, too, will be at its end.


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