Separation Not Only for Libertarians and Christians Anymore

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Growing religious diversity increases need for Separation

by Steve Smith

Originally published in The Education Liberator, Vol. 3, No. 5, June 1996


One of the fun things I remember about my elementary school was the people who came around giving out free goodies. The local dairy people brought us cups of ice cream, the Coca-Cola people brought us rulers and pencils with the Coca-Cola logo on them, and one day in third grade the Gideons brought New Testaments and handed them out to us in class. (Yes, this was in a government school, so you can imagine how old I am.)


The day following the Gideons’ visit, one little girl — the only Jewish child in our third grade — brought her New Testament back and told the teacher, with what seemed considerable embarrassment, that her mother wouldn’t let her keep it. Even in those halcyon days of a Protestantized school system enjoying general assent, you couldn’t please everyone when it came to religious matters.


For three decades now, the answer to the “problem” of religious diversity in the schools has been a hypersensitive neutrality that has pleased few. Some Christians, especially, think that the schools have become actively hostile to their beliefs and values. In the media and in many people’s minds, the whole of the education wars is seen simply as a fight between conservative Christians and secularists.


Christians, though, are not the only religious people worried about what the government schools are doing to their children. The U.S. is becoming more religiously complex with every passing day. As the stories on Muslims in this issue of our newsletter show, there are large groupings of parents and children outside the Christian sphere who are ripe to receive the Separation solution to the education problem.


A one-size-fits-all school model never really did fit all; witness the incident with the Jewish girl in my third-grade class. In 1997, the common school experiment is coming apart at the seams as its administrators try, and fail, to meet the diverse needs of the children under its umbrella — or try on the other hand to maintain an unworkable “neutrality.”


Just as orange juice isn’t just for breakfast anymore (so the orange growers told us), Separation isn’t just for libertarians and Christians. There are millions of potential allies out there, in communities most of us haven’t thought to look. We need to start reaching out to them.

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