Religious Schools are Under Attack

In the Seventeenth Century, the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote his famous treatise Leviathan. Arguing that because man in the state of nature is inherently violent and unsociable, Hobbes proposed that the government was created to have unlimited power over its subjects. He rejected the notion of individual rights and separation of powers, instead resting all authority in a single absolute monarch.

The founders of our nation utterly rejected Hobbes’ approach to government, seeing from history and common sense that it would lead inevitably to tyranny and a suppression of individual natural rights. They built into our constitutional structure the strict separation of powers, checks and balances on each branch of government, respect for the freedom of non-governmental organizations, and strong protection of individual rights. They were trying to protect us from Leviathan.

Over the last century and a half, the constitutional barriers against the all-powerful state have been progressively eroding. Our federal and state governments have vastly expanded their authority over the lives of individuals and organizations. Enormous powers have been delegated to or seized by executive agencies that rule by decree and operate with virtually no effective oversight by legislatures, courts, or the people. This has been the source of unending political and legal conflict in numerous areas, including environmental and economic regulations, education, health care, and many others.

Leviathan has now focused its attention on religious schools here in New York, with the clear intention of either forcing them to submit to its authority or face destruction.

New York State law requires that non-public schools provide a “substantial equivalent” education to public schools. That term is undefined in the statute, which is always an invitation to mischief. Long-standing constitutional decisions recognize the right of parents to educate their children as they see fit, including the right to send them to religious schools of their choosing. For the most part, there have been few serious conflicts between these two legal principles. Until now.

Spurred by some complaints that Jewish yeshivas are not providing sufficient instruction in secular subjects, the State Education Department has now issued a decree that gives local public school boards broad power to inspect, oversee and intrude upon the independence of private religious schools. It would impose burdensome and costly requirements, such as a mandatory bilingual program and extended school hours. It would subject the curriculum and materials to government inspection and approval. It would even require private school teachers to be evaluated by the government. No objective standards are set out in the directives, leaving broad discretion in the hands of local school boards. Any private school that fail this inspection will be forced to close.

This would give local school boards virtually unlimited power over private religious schools. There is no protection against government officials who are hostile to religious schools or who just want to eliminate the competition. One can only imagine the kinds of curricula and materials that school boards could mandate – such as the wicked sex education required in the New York City public schools, which includes graphic instruction on sex and gender ideology as young as kindergarten.

There’s a name for schools that are subject to this kind of control by the government – public schools.

Private schools exist for a reason – parents don’t want to send their kids to public schools. Education is more than just lesson plans and test scores. Every school has a culture of its own that is a profound influence over the children. Religious schools reinforce the faith in every activity, including in the teaching of secular subjects. Moral values are taught not just by instruction, but by example. Religious parents want their kids to grow up in that kind of environment, not in the chaotic, dangerous and immoral atmosphere present in so many public schools. This is their natural inalienable right.

And make no mistake that Leviathan is very serious about bringing the private schools and religious parents to heel. Under this new plan, if a school fails the government scrutiny, parents will notified that “the students will be considered truant if they continue to attend that school.” In other words, if the parents don’t obey and send their kids to a public school, they would be subjected to a mandated report to state child protection authorities alleging “educational neglect”. That would lead to an incredibly intrusive investigation and the stigmatization of the parents as child abusers. It could lead to the child being removed from the home and put in foster care while the parents are prosecuted.

Leviathan does not brook opposition. There is always the iron fist behind whatever it does.

To their credit, the religious schools aren’t taking this sitting down. The New York State Council of Catholic School Superintendents, which represents 500 Catholic schools, wrote to state education authorities that it “rejects the recently released ‘substantial equivalency’ guidelines and is directing all diocesan Catholic schools not to participate in any review carried out by local public school officials.” In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, two leading rabbis, noting that there are over 440 yeshivas with over 165,000 students, emphasized that Jewish schools were the specific target this intrusion, and signaled that they too will resist.

Does anyone trust that the government will self-limit their exercise of this new-found power? That’s not how Leviathan works. These new rules would give Leviathan the authority to eliminate the very concept of independent private schools and to override the religious sensibilities of parents and school administrators. This is a grave violation of the natural right of parents and religious communities, and it must be resisted.

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