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Children at desks in a sunny classroom, representative of the Montgomery County curriculum.

When Schools Preach: Dogma and Doctrine in the Modern Classroom

Why is a diverse group of religious parents suing a Maryland School District? They’re teaching a new religion in the classroom.

Earlier this year, Jacob Hess and I wrote several articles engaging the idea that a new religion has become predominant in the United States (and much of the West).

This religion has fundamentally different ideas about the nature of the self, the purpose of life, and how to define and achieve transcendence. It includes the major markers of religion, such as its own rituals, mythology, and metaphysics.

Much of the tension we are facing today in our public discourse comes from the ascension of this new religion and negotiating what place it should have in our public life.

The largest challenge is that almost none of the adherents of this religion recognize it as religion. In our recent past, religion has almost always existed in mature deistic sectarian forms. And while this new religion doesn’t have those features, that’s not what defines religion.

Many are seeking to answer important, fundamentally religious, questions, such as who we are, how we should treat others, and what our place is, in what—they believe—are areligious ways. Their explorations are often rooted in philosophical and academic disciplines, such as the Frankfurt School. As a result, even though their answers to these religious questions are just as ineffable and unfalsifiable as any other religion, they believe their conclusions should be able to take an outsized role in public life that other religions cannot take because of our constitutional limitations on the establishment of religion.

The school district is establishing a new and distinct religion.

Imagine, for instance, a first-grade curriculum that had a word search with phrases such as “Rosary,” “Vatican,” “Limbo,” or “Beatitudes.” One might reasonably think this was an inappropriate activity for a public school regardless of whether they were teaching Catholic doctrine or merely using it as a “language arts” activity.

Most of us in the pluralistic West would be less concerned about ensuring the Catholics in the class see themselves in the curriculum than we would be about those who aren’t Catholic feeling excluded or proselyted to.

If a Muslim or Latter-day Saint family complained about such a curriculum, could you imagine a school administrator dismissing those with concerns because they are complaining about “inclusive materials?” I certainly hope not. Frankly, most American Catholics would agree that public schools aren’t the right place.

This powder keg of factors has ignited in Montgomery County, Maryland. Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) recently revised its curriculum to include books such as “Pride Puppy” about a family celebrating at a pride parade, and “Uncle Bobby’s Wedding” about a same-sex marriage. It includes word searches with words such as “intersex,” “drag queen,” and “leather.” This curriculum is aimed at children as young as preschoolers.

Many families tried to opt out of the materials, but the district rejected the request describing it as “language arts” material, not “human sexuality,” and dismissed their concerns as complaining about “inclusive materials.” Later they announced that they would not even inform families when these materials were presented in classrooms. As a result, a religiously diverse group of parents have sued MCPS, including Catholics, Muslims, Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, and Latter-day Saints. 

As Latter-day Saints, we have always existed on the frontier of religious freedom in the United States. Our robust theology and worship are only possible because of these protections. So when we see government agencies imposing religion on others, we are naturally concerned.

For example, now-President Dallin H. Oaks, the second-most presiding leader in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said first in 1963 that the rulings on prayer in school were reasonable, a position he continued to hold while serving in church leadership while much of the religious right was fighting to reinstate it. During these fights, Latter-day Saint and Republican Senator Orrin Hatch was advocating instead for silent prayers that could respect the diversity of students’ religions.

However, it is the diversity of religious parents opposed to this curriculum that has been so often noted in media coverage of the matter. Many religious groups not normally affiliated with freedom of religion causes have shown up with concerns, confusing some political commentators. 

And if this were merely a matter of supporting everyone’s civil rights, that reaction would make sense. But what if, instead, these ideas about the nature of self and identity were, in fact, part of a unique religious worldview? I expect that we would see something exactly like we’re seeing now, where those from diverse religions come out in mass, confused and indignant, that their children are being proselyted into a new faith—even if they don’t quite have those exact words to describe it.

Many critics have described this as the parents trying to push their religion on the school district. Given the diversity of religions and the fact that they are merely requesting an opt-out, this claim simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

The school district has argued that they are not interfering with parents’ religious freedom rights because parents can still teach their children what they want at home. 

And they’re right. That’s not the problem. The parents are still free to exercise their religion. There’s a much larger and more trenchant problem: the school district is establishing a new and distinct religion. 

In the above examples, no one would be concerned that putting out the Catholic word search would constitute violating the free exercise of the other parents; they’d be rightfully worried that it constitutes establishing a religion.

Some might object that celebrating pride or same-sex marriage is not establishing religion but merely celebrating who those people are. But defining who we are is a religious question. And this curriculum teaches children answers to that question that are foreign to many other religious answers to that same question.

Christian Smith, in his book, The Sacred Project of American Sociology, noticed this religiosity in his field of sociology. He wrote that “Sociology misrecognizes its very own project.” Why not merely admit the religiosity, he wonders? Smith proposes that making the religious nature public would threaten the “authority” and “legitimacy” on which it “depends for its success.” The pattern Smith identified in sociology is the same basic pattern found repeated by this religious movement across its areas of influence. 

The MCPS can violate the religious freedom of the families it serves without preventing them from teaching their children at home. If teachers led a prayer to Allah, passed out Rosary beads before lunch, or read from the Book of Mormon, they would be violating the basic pluralistic contract that has allowed our nation to survive. 

The same is true if the teachers are passing out “Drag Queen” word searches, reading from “Uncle Bobby’s Wedding,” or reciting the sing-songy lyrics of “Puppy Pride.”

So, yes, parents are free to teach their children their religious approach to defining themselves at home, but they shouldn’t have to compete with teachers telling them a different, no less, religious approach to defining themselves at school.

As I noted in my piece analyzing this new religious movement, its adherents often seek to transmit it through existing institutions—schools primary among them. And they often use the authority and legitimacy Smith observes them clinging to in order to do so. What is happening in Montgomery County is a microcosm of a much larger and more salient conflict. 

Let me be clear, I’m not objecting to this new religion. I believe its adherents have the right to their beliefs. There are many places where our unique worldviews overlap, and we can work toward solutions together. But just because I respect this religion does not mean it is appropriate for it to become the official religion of the MCPS or any other public entity. These are not neutral answers just because those who believe them can’t see that they’re religious.

Public institutions must be neutral.

Once we understand this unique set of beliefs as a religion, solutions to these problems become much more straightforward. Should school districts have a book about a family participating in a pride parade in its library? If it also has books about families celebrating Ramadan, Easter, and Yom Kippur, why not? Should the school district have teachers read these books to students and not allow them to opt-out? Obviously not. Once framed correctly, the answers aren’t hard. (At least in many cases. I’m not suggesting this is a cure-all.)

The Anti-Defamation League, no stranger to preserving and safeguarding religiously neutral civic spaces, has written:

Not endorsing or not appearing to endorse religion is especially important in the public school setting. This is due to a number of considerations unique to the public schools: the specific sensitivities of school-age children; the fact that public schools are public institutions; and the profound influence of school officials and teachers over students. … Moreover, children are highly susceptible to coercion. … These factors create a significant danger when religion is introduced into the public schools in circumstances evincing the apparent endorsement of teachers.

I couldn’t agree more. And while many have tried to paint this as religious individuals fighting for their free exercise of religion, it’s not how the parents see it. They see it as their local government sponsoring a belief system in direct opposition to theirs.

In coverage by The Free Press, a woman who would only identify herself as Hiwot described it as “a state-sponsored campaign to shame us into a corner.”

Another of the local parents, Raef Haggag, explained that one of the reasons he came to the United States was “because it was a safe and welcoming place.” He praised the diversity and inclusiveness, saying, “There are many families like mine that came from different parts of the world.” How could such a diverse place have such an iconoclastic school system? 

Public institutions must be neutral in their missions and policies to the many different religious viewpoints in their community, even those religious viewpoints that don’t see themselves as one. As big and intractable as these conflicts may seem, we have navigated religious disputes in the past. And if we have the clarity to see this the same way, we can find sustainable solutions.

About the author

C.D. Cunningham

C.D. Cunningham is the managing editor of Public Square magazine. After graduating from BYU-Idaho, he studied religion at Harvard University Extension. He serves on the board of the Latter-day Saint Publishing and Media Association.
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