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Chicago Attorney Joe Morris Discusses Religious Liberty and School Boards

The school board is a public body endowed with certain governmental powers. Under the Federal and Illinois Constitutions, governments may neither prohibit the free exercise of religion nor use the power of government to propagate religion, anti-religion, or non-religion. Governments, including public school boards, may, and ought to, take reasonable steps to accommodate the free exercise of religion by people whom they serve and whom they employ.

Every individual, whether or not in public office, should be free to hold religious beliefs and to act upon them in the conduct of their lives, including in the formation of ethical and moral judgments. We expect public officials to act, subject to constitutional and legal principles and constraints, to make policy. We expect them to enact and pursue policies that are ethical and moral. The ethical and moral principles that guide them may very well be religious in inspiration.

Thus, for example, candidate Peter Dombrowski who pointed out that, as a lifelong Catholic he was "taught by nuns" to act in accordance with "The Golden Rule" thus offered a simple, concise, and useful illustration of how religious belief may properly influence one's public conduct.

When people summarily say that they "believe in the separation of church and state" the meaning of such a statement is not always clear. If it means that they believe that government should neither interfere with the free exercise of religion nor establish religion but should maintain a benign neutrality respecting religion and among religions, they are on good constitutional ground. If they mean that public officials are required to be hostile to religion they are suggesting attitudes and actions that are contrary to constitutional principles.

Sometimes people think that the substance of the "separation" doctrine is to keep religion from influencing or controlling government. That is true to a point. But it is also true, and probably true to a larger and greater extent, that the doctrine is meant to keep government from influencing or controlling religion.

Many people see every aspect of life as intinct with religious significance and subject to moral and ethical considerations. Any and every parent, taxpayer, or other citizens, whether individually or organized into groups such as faith communities, has every right to take stands on ethical, moral, and policy questions; to base those stands on their religious principles and values; and to act in accordance with their religious principles and values, including when doing such things as casting their votes; exercising rights of speech, press, and assembly regarding the conduct of public business; and petitioning public officials, including school board members, for the redress of grievances as the individual or group may perceive or define grievances.

Similarly, it is appropriate for parents, taxpayers, and citizens to voice their concerns when they think that public schools are failing to accommodate the free exercise of religion or are overstepping their bounds by compelling submission by children to school-determined religious, moral, and ethical principles in preference to, or substitution for, the religious, moral, and ethical principles that parents determine for, and teach to, their children.

What I long to hear in discussions by school boards, teachers' groups, and pedagogues in general, is a recognition that parents are and should be the primary teachers of the religion, morality, and ethics of children; and that it is the role of schools to equip children with knowledge, including the acquisition of tools to pursue independent learning and thinking on a lifelong basis, that will accommodate and further the religious, moral, and ethical groundings, whatever they may be, that parents give to their children in their homes and houses of worship.

If schools saw themselves fundamentally as the agents and allies of, rather than as substitutes for, let alone as correctors of the errors of, parents—in all the glorious diversity of religions, cultures, and viewpoints with which one finds parents and families in a free society—then our society would be a happier, freer, and more ethical one.

Such a vision comes, however, at the price of requiring school trustees, administrators, and teachers to act with a certain degree of humility and restraint and to work harder to accommodate the true diversity that characterizes free people.

Anything that limits the power and magnifies the work of public officials and employees will always be unpopular with them. It is for this reason that speech, press, assembly, and petition rights are given such prominent protection (second only to religious liberties) under our Federal and State constitutions. Parents and taxpayers have the right to be informed and to be heard. They should be vigilant in asserting those rights.

School board candidates' fora should be addressing the important and appropriate topic of religious rights and government. It is a topic that deserves more, not less, public discussion, and always will. Protecting religious liberty at all levels of government and society is a hardy perennial for discussion in a free society, and the relevant lessons and precepts should be taught and revisited frequently, by every generation. People should be eternally vigilant that government is respectful of the "First Freedom." It is no accident that the religion clauses lead off the text of the First Amendment.

Given the temper of our times, although one might be disappointed that, at this meeting, the topic was given relatively short shrift, on the other hand, one might rejoice that it was discussed at all.