Monday, March 15, 2010

Doubting Thomas (Jefferson)

          What secular reasons can explain the Texas State Board of Education's recent decision to replace Thomas Jefferson with Thomas Aquinas? None that I can think of. It is a decision calculated to promote religion over religious freedom. In the old curriculum, students were expected to evaluate Jefferson's impact on political revolutions from 1750 to the present. The new standards replace Jefferson, the third president of the United States, with Aquinas, the medieval Catholic theologian and saint. Board members also rejected a proposal to require students to learn about the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. That proposal would have required students to learn why and how the Founding Fathers protected religious freedom in America by barring government from promoting or disfavoring any particular religion over all others.
          That last statement-- barring government from promoting or disfavoring any particular religion over all others--is an excellent summary of the Establishment Clause. The Texas Board rejected that proposal, however, because it is so fearful of the notion of separation of church and state (which is usually attributed to Jefferson) that it decided to omit Jefferson, the Establishment Clause, and the Enlightenment from the curriculum. The Board members relied on the argument that the words separation of church and state cannot be found in the Constitution.
          The Board members should educate themselves instead of others. It is irrelevant that the words separation of church and state are not in the Constitution. The Establishment Clause is an actual constitutional text that the Board members seem intent on avoiding and violating.
          The Founders put two Religion Clauses--Establishment and Free Exercise--into the Constitution for good reasons. They realized that every citizen's free exercise could be protected only if religions did not control the government. It doesn't matter if we use the exact words separation of church and state (taken from Jefferson's Letter to the Danbury Baptists) or not. In the Supreme Court case that first applied the Establishment Clause to state governments, the Court explained that, because of the Establishment Clause, neither a state nor the federal government can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religion, or prefer one religion over another. Nonetheless, the Texas Board prefers Thomas Aquinas to Thomas Jefferson, the development of the Moral Majority to the Civil Rights Movement, and  majority religious believers to Latino minorities.
          The late, brilliant, constitutional lawyer Philip Kurland once wrote about the Establishment Clause that one of the evils arising from "the alliance of church and state . . .  was the inhibition on scientific endeavor that followed from the acceptance by the state of church dogma." The Texas Board's conduct reminds me why we need an Establishment Clause that applies to both the federal government and the states: to free us from public education rooted in church dogma and the Board members' religious commitments.

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