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The Great (Un)Equalizer: Espinoza v. Montana

The Free Exercise Thereof

By Aidan R. Scully, Contributing Opinion Writer
Aidan R. Scully ’25 is a Classics and Religion concentrator in Adams House. His column “The Free Exercise Thereof” appears on alternate Tuesdays.

To Horace Mann, the secretary of the country’s first state education board, education was “the great equalizer of conditions of men — the balance wheel of the social machinery.” Public education, at that time still a radical experiment, was to be the mechanism by which any child, regardless of their background, could become a capable and informed citizen.

Over a century and a half after Mann’s era, public education still falls short of his lofty aspirations; the benefits of education have been handed out unevenly, and those that gain the most from public education continue to be those who had the most when they arrived. Yet even with economic effects in question, the civic effects are clear, as public education has been shown to increase health, volunteerism, and civic engagement.

It is on this civic front that public education is unique as “the great equalizer;” learning math or history alongside students from other racial, economic, and religious backgrounds teaches public school students more than just math or history. They are learning how to be citizens in a cosmopolitan society, how to understand other points of view, and how to respect others because of, not despite, their differences — including, in a country with a proud national myth and murky history regarding the matter, their religious differences

Public education is the cornerstone of our pluralistic society. So it should come as no surprise that Christian Nationalists are launching a full-frontal assault to undermine it.

In 2015, a group of low-income parents sought to use funds from a state program in Montana to fund the education of their children at Stillwater Christian School. The program, however, only funded education at secular private schools, citing a Montana state requirement that the government cannot fund religiously-affiliated education. The parents filed a lawsuit, and a slim 5-4 Supreme Court majority ruled in their favor in Espinoza v. Montana. The Court also struck down a similar policy in Maine in Carson v. Makin this past June. In Maine, funding could be applied to religious schools, provided they passed a certain benchmark of providing a comparable secular education. That policy, however, was similarly ruled unconstitutional.

These two cases represent a startling entanglement between government funding of education and religion; under these rulings, states not only can fund religious education, but in cases where they offer funding to any non-public school, they must fund religious education.

Religious grounding for education is nothing new; Bible readings and teacher-led prayers were legal in public schools as recently as the 1960s, but they were both eventually removed because government entities are charged with being religiously neutral under the Establishment Clause. Public schools, as government-funded programs, thus inherit the same charge as their overseers: to serve the public, regardless of their identities.

Private religious schools do not have these obligations, an exception they frequently exploit not just in their curricula, but in their admissions and hiring practices as well. BGLTQ students and teachers are often subject to expulsion, with some schools that had signed up for the Montana program listing “homosexual behavior” alongside “incest” and “sexual abuse” as forms of sexual immorality and requiring job applicants to affirm that they do not engage in such behavior. Religious schools have also been given broad latitude to discriminate in the form of Title VII and Title IX exemptions that have allowed schools like Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School to fire a teacher due to a narcolepsy diagnosis. And with the segregationist legacy of American private schooling proving difficult to shake, private school students are largely insulated from people with different racial, religious, and sexual identities.

Decisions like Espinoza and Carson require that public funds go to schools like these. Requiring that public funds designated for education be sent to discriminatory institutions to be used in explicit religious instruction is more than just counterproductive. In the words of National Education Association president Becky Pringle, it “erodes the foundation of our democracy and harms students.” We fail our children by denying them a secular, pluralistic education that prepares them to live in modern society.

As an atheist, I personally believe that all religious assertions should be challenged, and that instructing our children to take any teaching as an immutable fact, even a religious tenet, is to do them a disservice. But regardless of religion, it is impossible to engage meaningfully in our society without being confronted by the possibility that your beliefs are wrong. That confrontation is uncomfortable, but that discomfort is a fact of life in a religiously diverse country. Public education, at its best, prepares students to confront that discomfort head on in ways that private religious education never can.

Our public education system is imperfect. But the solution is to invest in it more heavily, not to funnel those resources away to schools that insulate their students from the diversity (religious or otherwise) of the modern world. When we discard true pluralism in favor of a certain religious truth, we prevent education from becoming “the great equalizer” imagined by Horace Mann and generations of educators since. A respectful pluralistic society begins in the schools, and we have a responsibility to ensure that they are supported for the generations that follow us.

Aidan R. Scully ’25 is a Classics and Religion concentrator in Adams House. His column “The Free Exercise Thereof” appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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