A "right not to be indoctrinated"?

Co-blogger Richard Hoppe noted a few weeks ago that a group of creationists in Kansas have sued the state’s Board of Education for teaching evolution in public schools on the theory that such teaching “endorses” a “worldview” which is tantamount to a religion, as prohibited by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. As our NCSE friends observe, courts have consistently rejected the argument that science is a “religious worldview” which the government is prohibited from endorsing. But there’s another…shall we say, innovative…aspect to the complaint. It alleges that teaching evolution violates the right of school children not to be indoctrinated. For instance, on p. 27, the complaint alleges that teaching evolution violates the rights of students because it “imbues them with a religious belief that is inconsistent with the beliefs their parents have sought to instill in them,” and “imbu[es] them with a religious belief that is inconsistent with their [the students’] existing religious beliefs.”

One might note that this is the whole point of education. And I don’t know that the courts have ever recognized a constitutional right of students_not to be indoctrinated. True, the Supreme Court has spoken eloquently of the importance of protecting freedom of thought, and has emphasized that “students may not be regarded as closed-circuit recipients of only that which the State chooses to communicate,” _Tinker v. Des Moines School Distict_, 393 U.S. 503, 511 (1969), and that government may not “prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.” _West Virginia Bd. of Ed. v. Barnette,_ 319 U.S. 624, 642 (1943). But the context of such statements shows that the Court was holding that the First Amendment does not allow schools to _silence_students or _force them to speak in support of a proposition they don’t believe. It was not saying that schools may not “indoctrinate” in the sense of propagating ideas and even requiring students to learn those ideas.

On the contrary, the Court has consistently recognized that one main purpose of government-run schools is just that: to propagate ideas to students for what is thought to be _society’s_best interest. As Justice Blackmun wrote in his separate opinion in Bd. of Ed. of Island Trees School Distict v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853, 876 (1982), “the Court has acknowledged the importance of the public schools ‘in the preparation of individuals for participation as citizens, and in the preservation of the values on which our society rests.’ Because of the essential socializing function of schools, local education officials may attempt ‘to promote civic virtues,’ and to “‘wake[n] the child to cultural values’…. [D]emocratic principles [make it]…entirely appropriate that the State use ‘public schools [to]…inculcat[e] fundamental values necessary to the maintenance of a democratic political system.’” (citations omitted).

In cases where the courts have blocked “indoctrination,” they have done so not in order to protect a student’s right not to be “imbued” with ideas “inconsistent” with those they already hold, but in order to protect the student’s right to express himself, or to protect the parents’ (limited) right to oversee the raising of their children. The most famous such case is Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972), which held that Amish school children could not be forced to attend public schools beyond the eighth grade. That decision focused exclusively on the rights of parents to direct the upbringing of their children. See, e.g., id._at 230-31 (“it is the parents who are subject to prosecution here for failing to cause their children to attend school, and it is their right of free exercise, not that of their children, that must determine [the case].”). And even there, the Court declared that the state has a “duty to protect children from ignorance,” _id. at 222, that “it is beyond dispute that the State acts ‘reasonably’ and constitutionally in requiring education to age 16 in some public or private school meeting the standards prescribed by the State.” Id. at 233.

A case directly on point is Mozert v. Hawkins County Bd. of Ed., 827 F.2d 1058 (6th Cir. 1987), cert. denied,_108 S.Ct. 1029 (1988), in students sued a school board for requiring them to read a textbooks that “[taught] or inculcate[d] values in violation of their religious beliefs and convictions,” 827 F.2d at 1061. The trial court agreed, but the Sixth Circuit reversed, holding that reading the books was not the same thing as being forced to profess a belief, or being prohibited from expressing disagreement. “No instrument of government can, consistent with the Free Exercise Clause, require [a religious] belief or affirmation,” the court held. “However, there was absolutely no showing that the defendant school board sought to do this…. Instead, the record in this case discloses an effort by the school board to offer a reading curriculum designed to acquaint students with a multitude of ideas and concepts, though not in proportions the plaintiffs would like. While many of the passages deal with ethical issues, on the surface at least, they appear to us to contain no religious or anti-religious messages. Because the plaintiffs perceive every teaching that goes beyond the ‘three Rs’ as inculcating religious ideas, they admit that any value-laden reading curriculum that did not affirm the truth of their beliefs would offend their religious convictions.”_Id. at 1069. That, the court held, was not the rule of the First Amendment. Schools may–indeed, they must–expose schoolchildren to ideas they disagree with. They may even require schoolchildren to learn those ideas well enough to explain them on a test or defend them in a hypothetical sense in debate class. The First Amendment only prohibits compulsion–compulsion of students by censorship or compelled endorsement–or compulsion of parents by excessive interference with parental rights.

I have a hard time imagining that the courts will use this case as an opportunity to stake out a right of students not to be “indoctrinated” with ideas they don’t want to hear–especially given the fact that this is pretty much the whole raison d’etre of government schools in the first place.

P.S.: I’ve been asked to remind folks that, like Popular Science, I don’t allow comments on my blog posts, but folks who have something to say can email me at tmsandefur@gmail.com.