By Joseph L. Conn
Idaho’s state slogan is “Great Potatoes, Tasty Destinations.” I’d like to add a third item: “Scrumptious Church-State Decisions.”
In a major defeat for the Religious Right, a federal court in Idaho has ruled that public charter schools have no constitutional right to use the Bible as part of their curriculum.
U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge held Monday that state education officials, not the Nampa Classical Academy, get to set the curriculum for public schools in the state. And state officials, Lodge continued, were right to exclude religious texts from the classroom out of respect for the separation of church and state.
Idaho’s constitution is really clear on this subject.
Article IX, Section 9 reads in part, “No sectarian or religious tenets or doctrines shall ever be taught in the public schools, nor shall any distinction or classification of pupils be made on account of race or color. No books, papers, tracts or documents of a political, sectarian or denominational character shall be used or introduced in any schools established under the provisions of this article, nor shall any teacher or any district receive any of the public school moneys in which the schools have not been taught in accordance with the provisions of this article.”
The U.S. Constitution is equally clear. Government is barred from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion,” and the Supreme Court consequently has repeatedly barred public schools from promoting religion in the classroom.
In keeping with those mandates, the Idaho Public Charter School Commission advised Nampa Classical Academy that it could not include the Bible and other religious texts as primary sources in its taxpayer-funded curriculum.
State officials were wary of the proposed classes because academy founder Isaac Moffett has been pretty straightforward about his right-wing religious bent. He has denounced the allegedly atheistic and secular ideas that he claims dominate in the public school system. And he says he patterned his academy after Hillsdale Academy, a private Christian prep school in Michigan (but with the religious element supposedly removed).
Irked by having to obey the constitutional rules, Moffett quickly lawyered up, bringing in attorneys from the Alliance Defense Fund, the 800-pound legal gorilla of the Religious Right. They filed suit charging state officials with everything from violating the free speech rights of teachers and students to trying to ban books.
Judge Lodge, a George H.W. Bush appointee, wasn’t having any of that.
“By selecting the school curriculum for public education,” he held, “the [state school officials] have not violated Plaintiffs’ rights. Just the opposite, [state school officials] have acted according to the laws of the State of Idaho and the demands placed upon them by the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution. The Plaintiffs remain free to speak and believe what they wish where they are the speaker and are not otherwise limited by law. Here, however, Plaintiffs simply are not the master of the content of the public school curriculum in Idaho. That responsibility falls squarely upon the [state school officials] who have acted appropriately.”
Alliance Defense Fund lawyers were predictably huffy about their loss.
Senior Legal Counsel David Cortman groused, “Children deserve a complete education, which is what Nampa Classical Academy provides.” He grumbled about the court’s compliance with “the so-called ‘separation of church and state.’”
Well, here’s some news, David. The “so-called” separation of church and state is still the law of the land, and with folks like you and your plaintiffs on the prowl, a lot of us are deeply grateful for that fact.
To celebrate, let’s all go out and order a large fries for lunch today in honor of Judge Lodge’s ruling. Make sure they’re “great potatoes” from the Gem State.