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Religious Powerplays

         Last month, the religious right lost a local skirmish in the culture war when federal district court Judge Mark Wolf ruled that Lexington school officials did not violate the Constitution by distributing two books about gay families in a Lexington elementary school.  Wolf dismissed a case brought by 4 parents who regard homosexuality as sinful and argued that the effort to teach tolerance and respect for gay people and families interfered with their First Amendment rights to raise their children according to their own religious beliefs.  

         The offended parents had common sense as well as legal precedent against them: it’s hard to imagine how the public schools might function if every parent had a constitutional right to preview every book distributed to their children.  Parents have other options, as Judge Wolf, observed: they can seek political, not judicial solutions, by lobbying or trying to elect sympathetic school committees; they can enroll their kids in private religious schools or home school them.  

         Taking your child out of the public school system is a constitutional right.  Requiring public schools to teach your sectarian religious beliefs is an unconstitutional power.  That’s the implicit and essential lesson of Parker v Hurley.  Advocates of official, public school prayer or the teaching of creationism or abstinence only sex ed, among other articles of faith, have cleverly used the language of religious rights to disguise their demands for religious power.   The prohibition on official school prayer, for example, has long been cast as a violation of the right to pray – as if it included the right to subject captive audiences to publicly broadcasted prayer.  Students have never lost the right to pray.  What they lack is the power to impose their prayers on others.  The Lexington parents have not lost the right to control the religious education of their children.   They simply haven’t gained the power to control the religious education of their community.

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