I spent the first thirty years of my adult life fighting racial injustice in America. I was a community activist in Boston in the sixties, I spent time in jail in North Carolina in 1963, and I walked across that Selma bridge with Dr. King in 1965. I was the Massachusetts state official responsible for racial equity in schools from 1970 to 1991. So, I know something about racial justice.
I spent the next thirty years fighting religious injustice in America and abroad. I have written extensively on the ways in which more than sixty countries accommodate religious convictions in their educational systems, or fail to do so. My most recent book is about how Islamic high schools form American citizens, and my most recent published study discusses government interference with Orthodox Jewish schools in Europe. I’ve worked with Catholic and evangelical schools and associations in America and served as an expert witness in cases across the country challenging official prejudice against faith-based schools.
So, I know something about religious injustice, as well. This second struggle for justice seems to me as fundamental as the first, and the two share some characteristics. With religion as with race, there is an old injustice to correct. And in both cases, we are making progress. But in both cases, too, there are new injustices to beware.
The old injustice against black Americans involved laws and administrative practices that discriminated against them and limited their participation in American society. Though these practices had their roots in slavery, they were reimposed after emancipation in the form of Jim Crow laws across the South. And in other parts of the country they were imposed, more subtly but still powerfully, in the form of government and economic practices such as real estate “red-lining” and the drawing of attendance zones and feeder patterns to prevent racial mixing in public schools and public housing.
The dismantling of these structural injustices began with the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional. But despite the decades of progress ensuing from this decision in the judicial and political realms, it is still possible to detect the lingering effects of these injustices—for instance, the concentration of black and Latino pupils in low-performing public schools. These effects were the focus of my work in the seventies and eighties.
During the late nineteenth century, as Jim Crow was being instituted to discriminate against black Americans, another set of laws and court decisions was being instituted to discriminate against Catholic Americans. At a time when state after state was requiring that children be sent to school, thirty-seven states adopted so-called Blaine Amendments forbidding the use of public funds to support private schools with a religious—in effect, Catholic—character. This at a time when American public schools had a distinctively Protestant character.
During the postwar years, as official racial discrimination was being challenged with increasing success, the scope of religious discrimination was broadened by a series of Supreme Court decisions that removed the residual Protestant aspects of public schools, including prayers and Bible reading. Now it was not only Catholic students whose beliefs were to be marginalized as a matter of policy. Education at public expense would now be on the basis of a completely secularistic and materialistic understanding of the world.
We must make a distinction—too often overlooked—between instruction and education. Instruction is the teaching of skills and knowledge, the sorts of attainments for which we test; education is the formation of character, of convictions, of a disposition to act in a consistent manner. Every school necessarily provides both—though sometimes the education, since it is untestable and unquantifiable, may be confused, based on unexamined assumptions, even harmful.
A school whose mission arises from an explicit set of beliefs, whether religious or philosophical, is typically concerned to provide an education consistent with those beliefs, as well as instruction in knowledge and skills. Surveys show that the education provided by a school is an important factor for parents as they decide where to send their children—even when, as is sometimes the case with urban Catholic schools, the beliefs are not shared by the parents in every particular. Schools that profess an explicit set of beliefs are and should be free to promote a distinctive understanding of the world and of human flourishing, because their students’ parents choose them in full knowledge of their mission to educate in accord with this understanding.
By contrast, public schools that enroll pupils on the basis of involuntary assignment are not—or should not be—free to educate in accordance with such a distinctive understanding; to do so would violate the consciences of the pupils and their families. These schools are government institutions, and it is appropriate, indeed essential, that our government institutions be religiously neutral, or “secular.” It is, however, inappropriate for government schools to be secularistic, to promote a worldview that dismisses all claims based upon religious convictions. This, likewise, would (and often does) violate the consciences of students and their families.
Given the diversity of convictions among the American people, the only system of schooling that permits schools to provide coherent education in addition to instruction is one that is structurally pluralistic. Government would permit private schools to express their missions within a framework of accountability for academic outcomes. Public funding would be provided for all such schools on an equal basis, so that parents would not pay a financial penalty, as they do at present, for choosing schools in accord with their convictions. Such a policy would correct a religious injustice; it would also constitute progress toward correcting a racial injustice. At present, black and other minority parents are disadvantaged by the limitation of public funding for private schools; it has the effect of constraining the decisions they wish to make for the welfare of their children.
Is this model unrealistic? Not at all. It describes accurately the arrangement in the Netherlands and other countries that guarantee religious justice by providing public funding to schools based upon the decisions of parents about what they want for their children. In more than a dozen Western democracies, such funding goes directly to faith-based schools on the basis of how many children are enrolled there. Only about one-third of Dutch students attend what we would consider common public schools—and the Dutch experience far less conflict over schooling than we do in the United States.
We have made significant progress toward such an arrangement in the United States as a result of state legislative actions and Supreme Court decisions—most recently Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue (2020), in which the Court ruled that a scholarship program that provides public funds to allow students to attend private schools may not discriminate against schools with a religious character. But there remain significant barriers to religious justice in American education. The most obvious is the organized and effective opposition of the teachers’ unions and other parties with an interest in perpetuating our public-school quasi-monopoly. The interest of parents in fundamental reform of an unjust system is far more difficult to mobilize.
A subtler but still powerful barrier is the disdain for religious convictions so evident among our cultural elites. This attitude includes a belief that young people become autonomous and thus authentic by growing out of the loyalties and convictions maintained by their families. Meira Levinson of the Harvard education faculty, for example, insists that “the state is justified . . . in helping children to develop the capacity for autonomy, even against parents’ and children’s expressed wishes.” She dismisses “the misapprehension that liberalism requires the state to be neutral among competing conceptions of the good.” Religious schools should be permitted, Levinson and others argue, only if they do not seek to promote distinctive convictions.
Hostility to religious schooling is not uniquely American. My inbox today contains a message from Britain’s National Secular Society, urging my support for their campaign “NO MORE faith schools” and describing Scotland’s faith schools as “a divisive anachronism.” Millions of British parents choose religious schools for their children, and academic achievement in these schools is at least as good as that in secular schools. But the very existence of schools with a religious character is offensive to supporters of the National Secular Society.
Anti-religious prejudice is as intense and profound as racial prejudice and, unlike the latter, is accepted in elite circles today. So, as we confront religious injustice in education, we have a double challenge: There is the political challenge of mobilizing popular support for parental choice in schooling against the opposition of the public education establishment, and there is the cultural challenge of calling out anti-religious prejudice and promoting an alternative based on a pluralism of reasonable beliefs. It is by taking on these challenges that we will show ourselves worthy of the heritage of the Mayflower pilgrims who came four centuries ago seeking freedom to live out their convictions.
Charles L. Glenn is professor emeritus of educational leadership and policy at Boston University.