Editor’s Note: This week “The Wall of Separation” blog continues to recount the top 10 church-state stories from 2023. Today we look at how Americans United responded to Christian Nationalist efforts to undermine or control public education.
One of Americans United’s most important tasks is to protect secular public education, and these days, that often involves fending off dangerous proposals from Christian Nationalists.
Public schools embrace the mission of serving all children – no matter their race, socioeconomic background, gender identification or religious/philosophical beliefs. All are welcome. But our schools can’t meet that goal if they’re not adequately funded. That’s one reason why Americans United opposes private school vouchers and related schemes that siphon money away from public schools and give it to private (often religious) institutions.
Unfortunately, voucher plans have been spreading in the states recently; at least 11 states created or expanded voucher programs this year, including Arkansas, Iowa and Arizona. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) has proposed dramatically expanding that state’s plan.
Good news from Illinois and Texas
But not all the news is bad. Illinois legislators allowed that state’s voucher plan to expire this year; it will be the first time a program like that was terminated. Legislators in Texas have so far remained united to block vouchers there in the face of a relentless pro-voucher fusillade by Gov. Greg Abbott (R). And in Nebraska, voters will determine the fate of the state’s new voucher plan at the ballot in 2024. Let’s hope the pattern holds and voters reject it.
In Oklahoma, a different kind of threat to public education has reared its head. In June, the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board voted to approve St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School, the nation’s first “religious public charter school” (talk about an oxymoron!).
Americans United, alongside the American Civil Liberties Union, Education Law Center and Freedom From Religion Foundation, is suing, arguing that the school plans to teach a religious curriculum and discriminate against students, families, and employees who do not follow the institution’s religious doctrines.
School curricula under attack
Public schools also face efforts by Christian Nationalists to impose their narrow religion onto students and remove books and curriculum material that these religious extremists dislike.
In Texas, public schools may now hire chaplains in place of guidance counselors, and the state considered requiring public schools to post the Ten Commandments. Far-right, propagandistic videos by PragerU have been approved for use in Florida and Oklahoma public schools and are under consideration elsewhere.
Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters sought to make a name for himself as a Christian Nationalist culture warrior by vowing to return school-sponsored prayer in public schools and attacking separation of church and state. That principle, Walters insists, “doesn’t exist.”
Books bans are a nationwide problem, and in many states, Christian Nationalist groups are running amok, demanding that certain titles, usually those with LGBTQ+ or BIPOC characters or themes, be removed from school libraries or placed on restricted access. Florida’s notorious “don’t say gay” bill was expanded to cover all public schools, and anti-LGBTQ+ policies, especially those targeting transgender students, are proliferating.
How AU protects public education
Defending inclusive public education from the corrosive force of Christian Nationalism is never easy, but it’s among the most important things Americans United does, through our legal efforts, policy initiatives, communications work and grassroots organizing.
We’re determined to see that America’s public schools have the resources they need to achieve their goal: offering sound secular education to every child who walks through the doors.