Among the most precious rights of parenthood is our right to raise our children in accordance with our own religious beliefs, free of government interference. Clergy are usually among the fiercest defenders of that right. Ministers and rabbis are more…
Among the most precious rights of parenthood is our right to raise our children in accordance with our own religious beliefs, free of government interference. Clergy are usually among the fiercest defenders of that right. Ministers and rabbis are more sensitive than most to the importance of religious and ethical principles to the formation of character, and they have been among the most ardent defenders of the right of parents to transmit those values to their children.
That is what makes the defense by some ministers of the so-called "Listening Post" program in Decatur Township so puzzling.
"The Listening Post" is a classic violation of the First Amendment. It is a program that invites ministers from selected denominations into the public schools, during the school day, to "counsel" students. There is no pedagogical purpose to their presence; schools employ guidance counselors whose job it is to provide students with educationally appropriate counseling, and there is no suggestion that these ministers are providing remediation in, say, reading or math. Their sole purpose is to be available to students who may be experiencing problems that make them emotionally vulnerable, and to offer those students the benefit of the ministers’ particular beliefs.
"Our main objective is to be a support system and resource center for the greater body of Christ in this area," said Rev. John Dunaway, chair of the greater Decatur Township Ministerial Association, which conducts the program. That is an admirable objective for a ministerial alliance; it is an entirely inappropriate goal for a tax-supported public school.
The program would be improper even if the ministers who participated were scrupulous in following the guidelines, which (presumably in recognition of the constitutional problems involved) prohibit outright proselytizing. But students allege that those guidelines are routinely ignored. According to several students, ministers stop uninvited at cafeteria tables and insist upon praying with them.
It is difficult to imagine a more direct assault on the rights of families to define their own religious traditions. One of the reasons schools have been given such latitude to discipline young people is because they are seen as more vulnerable than adults to a whole host of influences. I count myself among those who feel that the courts have often gone too far in deferring to the argument that the schools are surrogate parents, but it is true that youngsters are more impressionable than adults and that schools assume some measure of parental authority over them. As parents, we entrust our children to the schools; it is a flagrant breach of that trust to promote "counseling" by representatives of religious denominations.
What makes this particular violation of the First Amendment even more egregious is that it is totally unnecessary. While courts have consistently ruled against coerced religion in the public schools, they have just as consistently allowed released time programs that offer religious instruction and "counseling" off the school premises. Unlike the "Listening Post," however, those programs require parental permission. Unlike the "Listening Post," they respect the authority of the family.