The bathroom wars are consuming a huge amount of space and time in all our minds. Many parents are hoping to be able to strategically side-step the whole issue of which bathrooms are for what groups and how to keep all kids safe by sending their children to religious, private schools.
This side-step may not be possible for long. The Obama administration is investigating a school in Wisconsin for sending home letters telling parents and students that they expect students to live within Christian values while at school. This is a private Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod school that serves a tiny group of students—from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade they have 147 students and 10 teachers.
In February the school instituted some new policies that sparked a complaint from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. These policies include having parents provide a birth certificate (with the child’s sex on it) and signing a handbook that gives the school the right to discipline students for exhibiting sinful behavior.
Just Like Transgender People, We Want to Live According to Our Beliefs
The school principal explains their rationale as, “If we cannot legally refuse students who are struggling with homosexuality or gender identification, we must maintain our right to hold to the truths of God’s Word. In other words, although we do not have the right to refuse admittance to people choosing an outwardly sinful lifestyle, we do maintain the right to discipline and dismiss students for these choices.”
Opponents of the school’s right to set policies in line with its church’s doctrine argue that “It is problematic for a school that receives federal funds to discriminate against students because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Schools that are supported with taxpayer money must comply with minimum civil rights standards. St. John’s Lutheran School has indicated that it will dismiss students on an illegal basis under federal law.”
St. John’s accepts federal money to provide subsidized school lunches, transportation help, and other federal programs. This money provided an opening for the federal complaint. With the recent instructions from President Obama about bathrooms and transgender students, the school had a choice between turning down federal money or changing policies. St. John’s attempted to find a middle ground between these two options by allowing all students to attend, regardless of their sexual identity, but then making behavior the Bible defines as sinful offenses that students can be expelled for.
Is Freedom of Association Dead?
It seems ridiculous to question if religious schools should be able to operate within the bounds of their church’s doctrinal stances. Until recently, this is something that many of us have taken for granted. If you don’t agree with the basic tenets and premises of a religion, don’t attend their services, don’t attend their schools, and don’t expect them to change for you.
Complaints like this call that premise into question. With growing numbers of Americans no longer identifying as conservative Christians, passive cultural support for Christianity is also waning. This goes beyond parochial schools. Recent times saw questioning whether religious orders could be compelled to provide birth control and abortion coverage to their members, even when those members don’t want it.
Isn’t that what this comes down to? This isn’t about birth certificates, bathrooms and locker rooms, or the pill. Those goalposts can and will move. This is about something more basic, more fundamental.
There’s so much talk about individual rights. What is the solution when two very incompatible worldviews crash together? Should people continue to have the freedom in voluntary spaces like religious orders, churches, parochial schools, and non-essential businesses to choose their consumer base according to shared values, even when those values are out of step with those of the prevailing culture?
That’s what these court cases and federal complaints are about. St. John’s Lutheran School in Baraboo isn’t the only school in town. It’s not the only choice available, and families that disagree with its policies won’t have children barred from receiving an education. The same cannot be said for families seeking a conservative Christian education if St. John’s is forced to change.