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A call for separation of school and state

(Matt Wuerker illustration)

WHATEVER ELSE might be said about it, US District Judge Mark Wolf's decision in Parker v. Hurley is a model of clear English prose.

"The constitutional right of parents to raise their children does not include the right to restrict what a public school may teach their children," Wolf unambiguously wrote in dismissing a suit by two Lexington couples who objected to lessons the local elementary school was teaching their children. "Under the Constitution public schools are entitled to teach anything that is reasonably related to the goals of preparing students to become engaged and productive citizens in our democracy."

Entitled to teach anything. That means, the judge ruled, that parents have no authority to veto elements of a public-school curriculum they dislike. They have no right to be notified before those elements are presented in class. And the Constitution does not entitle them to opt their children out of such classes when the subject comes up.

As Wolf's straightforward language makes plain, it doesn't much matter what that subject might be. The parents in the Lexington case objected to "diversity" instruction that presented same-sex marriage and homosexual attraction as unobjectionable. That message contradicted the parents' "sincerely held religious beliefs that homosexuality is immoral and that marriage is necessarily . . . between a man and a woman."

But suppose instead that the facts had been reversed, with parents who passionately support same-sex marriage filing suit because the school kept emphasizing the traditional definition of wedlock -- a definition democratically reaffirmed in many state constitutional amendments and statutes in recent years. As Wolf applied the law, the result would have been the same: The complaint would have been dismissed, and the school would have prevailed. Read again the judge's words: "The constitutional right of parents to raise their children does not include the right to restrict what a public school may teach their children."

Similarly, the school would have prevailed if this had been a case about guns, with parents objecting to a curriculum that emphasized the Second Amendment and armed self-defense. Or a case about evolution, with parents outraged because their children were being taught that Darwinism and intelligent design were equally legitimate approaches to an ongoing debate. Or a case about race, with plaintiffs suing because their kids were learning that affirmative action amounts to reverse racism.

Parker v. Hurley, in other words, was not just a victory for gay-marriage advocates or a defeat for Judeo-Christian traditionalists. It was a reminder that on many of the most controversial subjects of the day, public schools do not speak for the whole community.

When school systems deal with issues of sexuality, religion, politics, or the family, there is always an overriding agenda -- the agenda of whichever side has greater political clout. Parents who don't like the values being forced down students' throats have two options. One is to educate their children privately. The other is to find enough allies to force their own values down students' throats. In Judge Wolf's more genteel formulation: "Plaintiffs may attempt to persuade others to join them in electing a Lexington School Committee that will implement a curriculum . . . more compatible with their beliefs."

Once Americans may have agreed on what children should be taught, but that day is long gone. On any number of fundamental issues, parents today are sharply divided, and there is no way a government-run, one-curriculum-fits-all education system can satisfy all sides. The only way to end the political battles over schooling is to depoliticize the schools. And the only way to do that is to separate school and state.

Parents should have the same freedom in educating their kids that they have in clothing, housing, and feeding them. You wouldn't let the government decide what time your kids should go to bed, or which doctor should treat their chicken pox, or how they should spend their summer vacation, or which religion they should be instructed in. On matters serious and not so serious, parents are entrusted with their children's well-being. Why should schooling be an exception?

Get government out of the business of running schools, and a range of alternatives will emerge. Freedom, innovation, and competition will do for education what they do for so much else in American life: increase choices, lower costs, improve performance -- and eliminate conflict. So long as education is controlled by the state, the battles and bad blood will continue. With more liberty will come more tolerance -- and more resources spent on learning than on litigation.

Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is