Power & Market

Public Schools Pushing Moral Standards Isn’t New

Public School

Last month the governor of Louisiana signed several pieces of legislation related to education. The most controversial bill is LA HB71. This law requires all public K-12 schools in Louisiana to accept any monetary donations towards or displays of the Mayflower Compact, the Declaration of Independence, the Northwest Ordinance, and the Ten Commandments. The media is running wild with this story, as if this is the first time that public schools are being required to push moral principles onto students.

 While the constitution does restrict the establishment of a state church and ensures high levels of societal religious freedom, it is logically impossible for a school to operate outside of a value system. Additionally, this piece of legislation references previous Supreme Court Cases which have allowed for the Ten Commandments to be displayed on public property, as long as the display is funded through donations. The bill also includes language to state that the display will either be funded by donation or through some other appropriate means. The Louisiana legislature cites multiple reasons as to why the Ten Commandments is considered a foundational, historical document to the creation of the United States. This point is complicated to uphold, as it is true that most of the North American colonies had what were essentially state churches, but the Bible was not mentioned in governing documents.

What is more complicated is how misunderstood the separation of church and state principle is. Rather than being part of the constitution, or any other founding document, this idea was lifted from a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1802 to members of the Danbury Baptist association. In this letter Jefferson asserts this principle based on requirements of the First Amendment. The Separation of the Church and State can be interpreted in different ways, with some believing not that the state should perform the impossible task of being morally neutral, but that the church has certain jurisdiction in society, and the state has others. This separation is meant to allow for checks on both the church and state, while also allowing for religious freedom in society.

Claims that the Ten Commandments was a historical, foundational document to the United States may be shaky, but claims that public schools are, or ever could be morally neutral is absurd. It would be impossible to find a public school which does not instruct its students not to steal, lie about other students, kill, covet the property of other students, or respect the authority of school faculty and staff. In addition to these long-time respected values, public schools are increasingly requiring students to respect the individual identity of each student, view equality of outcome as preferable, take all opinions of the administration as gospel truth, and give into illogical levels of empathy instead of relying on rationality or systematic philosophy.

Foundationally no institution can operate irrespective of its preferred values or presuppositions. An institution that holds that its moral system is objectively correct is fundamentally no different from an institution that holds that its moral system is objectively correct, and that it comes from religious values. As the state will always assert certain values as important, it then becomes up to the electorate to determine which values are best to be respected in schools and other institutions. This is an unescapable reality of democracy, the preference of the majority will always rule over any rights or preferences of the minority. The state of Louisiana has a certain level of autonomy that the federal government cannot currently violate, but this can be changed through various processes which are directly, or indirectly democratic.

The nationalist American founders had asserted that democracy would not be allowed to infringe upon natural rights as long as the rulers remained moral and upright. This is of course propaganda, and ignores how many of the founders acted during the constitutional convention. Realities of realpolitik and the corrupting nature of the state should have been obvious to these men who fled British infringement. A Jeffersonian “empire of liberty” was always bound to conflict with principles of local liberty.

This Louisiana legislation is likely to be brought to the Supreme Court for consideration. The Supreme Court will then pass down a decision meant to affect the whole country, but this decision has the potential to be changed as justices move in and out of the court. The typical conservative strategy of utilizing the federal state to enforce their preferences misses this point. Progressives will gladly assist in the growth of the state, as the state is seen usually as the great arbiter of justice and equality. Conservatives have, and naturally will continue to lose ground nationally. This is not to say that conservative political parties will never win elections, but that conservative principles will always be moving to ensure political relevance. The correct solution to this problem would be to support increased levels of localism and privatization.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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