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The U.S. supreme court blew out the cornerstone of racial segregation with Brown v. Board of Education, its monumental decision in 1954. The Court's new decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris will do the same to state-sponsored anti-religious bias.

The 5-4 court majority upheld a Cleveland voucher program that gives tax dollars mostly to impoverished parents, who in turn can use that money at any participating school: public, private, or parochial. With this decision, the Court has redefined the meaning of public education in America and effectively ended the monopoly of secular government schools. It's about time.

The ideas of Thomas Jefferson, Horace Mann, and others laid the intellectual foundation for a government-run school system 160 years ago, but religious and ethnic prejudice energized that movement. When European Catholic immigrants began pouring into Boston and New York in the 1840s, local and state governments were troubled—what would happen to "America" if such people, most of whom attended Catholic schools, were encouraged to keep their culture? Governments decided to organize schooling to promote a common culture—meaning, in essence, a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant culture. They defined Catholic schools, among others, as private, "sectarian" affairs undeserving of public support.

Not until the 1960s, when the secularism of Thomas Dewey and other educational theorists made its way into curriculum across the country, did Protestants begin to feel Catholics' pain. This was no sinister plot, but the logical outcome of a school system run by the government in a democratic society: The perceived assumptions and prejudices of most Americans became the basis for making decisions about what should go on in the public classroom. ...

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August 5, 2002

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