Religious freedom has taken another blow in Massachusetts. In February, a federal court dismissed claims by parents who objected to the presentation of homosexuality to their public grade-school children.
The parents had argued that their rights to religious freedom under both the federal and state constitutions had been violated by the school’s requirements. In addition, the parents argued that the state constitution explicitly gives them the right to “opt out” their children from the classes with which they disagree.
The court rejected their federal claims in their entirety, finding that the First Amendment does not hinder a school system from teaching “anything reasonably related to the goals of preparing students to becoming engaged and productive citizens in our democracy,” even if the teaching at issue, to 5- and 6-year-old children, violates the deeply held beliefs of the parents who entrusted their children to the system.
The court refused to rule on the state law claims, in particular the claim that Massachusetts was required to give the parents the ability to remove their children from classes that offended their beliefs.
While the decision does try to strike a conciliatory note, with the court opining that it hoped the parties could come to some accommodation, more worrying than the actual result in the case is the reasoning behind it. Indeed the court shows, despite its occasionally soothing rhetoric, what it really thinks of religion beliefs. First, the court offhandedly disparages poor parents who may have no other option than the public school by stating that the parents who objected to the public school teaching on religious grounds could send their children to a private or religious school.
The court compounds this disdain by indicating that the parents could elect their own candidates to the school board to enact a curriculum more compatible with their views, but as its lengthy opinion states, that is not really possible: Such a course would be an impermissible “establishment” of religion.
Second, the court misunderstands the place of religious freedom in American history. The court offers phrases such as, “Our nation’s history includes a fundamental commitment to promoting mutual respect among citizens in our diverse nation that is manifest in the First Amendment’s prohibitions on establishing an official religion and restricting the free exercise of religious beliefs.”
This phrasing is deeply misleading.
Religious liberty — the right to freely exercise one’s faith in word and deed, including how one chooses to raise children — is protected by the Constitution because the Founding Fathers believed it fundamental to a stable society, not because it fostered some contentless “mutual respect.” The phrase “established religion” is simply a scare tactic, meant to give cover to what is essentially an opinion aggrandizing state power at the expense of families.
Finally, the court basically forecloses what limited rights parents are afforded under state law and illustrates what it means by “mutual respect.”
The court suggests that parents, despite Massachusetts law allowing opt-outs, may still be prohibited from directing the upbringing of their children for the sake of the “message” it may send to other children.
The court’s reasoning is worth quoting here:
“An exodus from class when issues of homosexuality or same-sex marriage are to be discussed could send the message that gays, lesbians, and the children of same-sex parents are inferior and, therefore, have a damaging effect on those students. … It might also undermine the defendants’ efforts to educate the remaining other students to understand and respect differences in sexual orientation.”
So religious parents, should this view prevail, could not keep their children in class in good conscience, nor would they be able to remove them.
This case illustrates a worrying trend among state and federal courts that prejudice the rights of religious persons and institutions in the name of other values.
For example, courts in California and New York have forced Catholic hospitals to provide contraceptive coverage as part of their health care plan, finding that certain visions of “equality” can trump religious beliefs.
A California assisted-suicide bill now in the Legislature may have the same effect. And the explicitly anti-Catholic “Blaine” amendments prohibiting support for parochial schools still stand in many states.
This “new orthodoxy” requires religious institutions to bow to the will of the state, in the name of whatever principle the legislature may find paramount at the moment: equality, “death with dignity,” funded access to contraceptives. There is no principle here except for the will to power and antipathy toward religious belief.
Religious people, especially Catholics, need to understand that the legal deck in many ways is stacked against them. This decision is simply one more example.
Gerald J. Russello is a fellow of the Chesterton Institute at Seton Hall,
South Orange, New Jersey.