Separation of church and state is a bedrock of the Constitution and our American value system. It’s something we often take for granted and only notice when it’s infringed upon. However, there is one area of our governmental system that has to grapple with this separation arguably more than any other — education. There are obvious issues, such as teaching evolution in schools as demonstrated by the Scopes Trial or the issue of prayer in schools. However, I would like to argue that there is a much more subtle side to this issue. Religion often guides morality for groups of people, and schools are often charged with instilling a basic sense of right and wrong within students. Unfortunately (but somewhat inevitably), the handling of this issue can be clumsy. I personally experienced this in my own public high school when the school decided to diverge paths from the standard anti-drunk driving assembly to invite speakers from Fight the New Drug, an anti-porn organization.
The assembly was awkward, to say the least. As the perhaps overly enthusiastic speakers went on about the dangers of pornography addiction, most students shifted in their seats, eyes glued to the floor. The bolder ones would occasionally whoop or whistle or call out a sarcastic “Allelujah.” The bravest student volunteered to take a pledge of honor that he would never watch porn and for his bravery, he received a “Porn Kills Love” t-shirt. No, I’m not joking.
Discomfort aside, I couldn’t help but wonder if the school had crossed a line. No one would bat an eye if it was an assembly against drugs, drunk driving, or bullying — the standard battery of high school assemblies — but this felt different. To be clear, this is in no way a defense of the pornography industry, an industry that exploits tens of thousands of young women each year. However, this assembly seemed to have a definite moral, and even slightly religious, stance toward sexuality in general, citing potential damage to marriage as one of the consequences of viewing porn. While the organization claims to be non-religious and science-based, many have taken issue with the founding members’ association with the Church of Latter Day Saints. That being said, the assembly never explicitly mentioned religion, but it was the fact that a religious value system seemed to inform the content and perspective of the assembly that left a bad taste in the mouths of some students. In the large scheme of things, this assembly was a mere nuisance. However, when you start talking about things like abstinence-only education, which has been historically informed by a religious viewpoint, the issue gets more serious. It’s important to have discussions about how to deal with this. I would like to propose two possible solutions.
One solution is to educate students about ethical decision making. A reason to keep religion separate from education is to keep from indoctrinating students with a worldview that they have not chosen and maybe even don’t understand. Of course, it is necessary to teach kids that stealing, lying, bullying, etc., are wrong. However, students also need to be taught why that is, even at a young age. A proper ethics education could teach critical thinking skills that enable students to build their own value systems. While there are many things schools can teach as right and wrong that are almost universally agreed upon, there are many issues that aren’t, such as the viewing of pornography. The school’s duty, in this case, is not to take a stance in one direction or another, but rather teach students the skills to make these decisions for themselves. Furthermore, in high school, students start thinking about the world they want to live in and what their place in it will be, so why not start thinking about the school in which they want to learn and how they can have a hand in it? It could prove beneficial if high schools even built student-led ethics advisory boards that had a hand in school policy, and even the types of assemblies held, for the good of the student body.
Another solution could be establishing interfaith school boards in order to avoid giving preferential treatment to a certain religion in a school district. It could also bring people from different faith backgrounds together to work toward a common good — education of their community’s youth. After all, schools are meant to teach students how to function in an increasingly globalized and diverse world, so I think there is some inherent value in having a diversity of thought in the administration of education.
These solutions are far from perfect, but I think that it’s past time to start talking about what can be done to balance schools’ somewhat paradoxical obligations of keeping religion and education separate and instilling moral values in their students. Perhaps, these discussions will lead to a more thoughtful and well-rounded education system regarding morality. At the very least, they may prevent more cringe-worthy public high school assemblies.