Freedom of Religion and Public Schooling

By Otteson, James R. | Independent Review, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Freedom of Religion and Public Schooling


Otteson, James R., Independent Review


One may object to government support of education on various grounds. Here I consider two such grounds that have to do with moral consistency. First, state intervention in education, whether in the form of monetary subsidies, compulsory attendance laws, or national curriculum standards, entails violating a moral principle--freedom of conscience--that most people hold inviolable in another application, namely, in relation to religious practice. If one holds the moral principle in question to be inviolable in religious matters, then one should also hold it to be inviolable in educational matters., because the cases are analogous. Second, the same arguments typically raised against state intervention in religious practice can also be raised against state intervention in educational practice. I conclude that because, for moral argument, the cases of religion and education are essentially the same, consistency requires people who oppose state intervention in the one to oppose state intervention in the other.

Freedom of Conscience Covers Religion and Education

I suggest that the case of government support for education is analogous to the case of government support for religion, and therefore the moral acceptability of the one is the same as that of the other. My suggestion hinges on the claim that both cases fall under the rubric of freedom of conscience, and hence both should be protected on the moral principle that everyone's private conscience is inviolable and ought therefore to be safeguarded.

One of the central freedoms protected in the classical liberal scheme of rights is freedom of conscience; indeed, many of the other protections are means to the end of protecting freedom of conscience. Private property rights, for example, can be defended not by arguing that there is something inherently special about the things owned, but rather by arguing that allowing individuals to maintain personal jurisdiction over a specified domain of things (beginning usually with themselves(1)) enables them to act on their beliefs about the good life without interference from others. Actions are, after all, the product of beliefs about the world, and so the liberal claim that all people should enjoy this liberty of action on private property is just an extension of the belief that people are alike in having action-guiding private beliefs. It can then be argued that the beliefs themselves should be protected because a person cannot live a truly human or truly happy life--however one ultimately fleshes out the details of such a life(2)--unless he is allowed to hold and act on his own beliefs. Because private property is necessary for maintaining and acting on one's private beliefs, it is protected as a necessary means to the end of protecting one's private conscience.(3)

A word is required about the connection between protecting one's freedom of conscience and the ability to lead a truly happy life. One might think, for example, that it is possible to be happy without exercising one's freedom of conscience: perhaps one merely accepts the beliefs of one's parents without examination, and is perfectly content to do so. Two things should be said in response. First, people who accept the beliefs of their parents, even if uncritically, are still enjoying freedom of conscience. One does not have to examine one's beliefs to be free to hold them, just as one does not have to cultivate one's land to enjoy private ownership of it. Having the freedom to uncritically hold one's parents' beliefs is having freedom of conscience, because one retains the freedom to believe something else if one should so choose. Second, the relation between freedom of conscience, on the one hand, and that freedom's being a necessary condition for leading a truly happy life, on the other, should be specified in this way: the latter is the bedrock moral principle, the former the bedrock political principle that rests on the moral principle. …

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