Children in many U.S. schools yesterday heard President Obama exhort the values of hard work and personal responsibility in his back-to-school address. Reformed pastor John Piper of Bethlehem Baptist Church praised the speech as "a wonderful gift of common grace from God to the students of our land." Before the speech, many parents had protested the way it was framed—the Department of Education had given schools a "menu of classroom activities" that suggested students write about "how they could help the President"—rather than its content. Many parents demanded that their school districts provide alternatives to watching the speech or that they not show it at all. School districts were forced to respond with less than two weeks' notice to the Education Department's announcement.
Meanwhile, in Quebec, a court struggle recently broke out over a new, mandatory "Ethics and Religious Culture" course that will replace three separate religion courses for all students. Some Christian parents protested it as a violation of their right to choose their children's religious education, but Quebec's Superior Court ruled August 31 that the class does not violate the right to "freedom of conscience and religion" in the Canadian Charter of Rights. Here's how one law professor at the Universitfamp;copy; de Sherbrooke defended the ruling:
What parents were demanding was the right to ignorance, the right to protect their children from being exposed to the existence of other religions …. This right to ignorance is certainly not protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Freedom of religion does not protect the right not to know what is going on in our universe.
Then, a home-schooling mother in New Hampshire received a court mandate last week to send her 10-year-old daughter to start fifth grade in public school. The fight over Amanda Kurowski started with her divorced parents, her mother's Christian beliefs and her father's concern about Amanda's "rigidity on faith." District Court Judge Lucinda V. Sadler ruled that, thanks to her mother, Amanda was ignorant about other religions, and that the "vigorous defense of her religious beliefs … suggests strongly that she has not had the opportunity to seriously consider any other point of view."
What these controversies have in common is what they reveal about the state of parental rights. Defining these controversies as a struggle between ignorance and experience, or between "major problems" and "hoopla" (as did Secretary of Education Arne Duncan), makes them easier to dismiss. The real issue is the one behind the details: These days it seems that one parent's "ignorance" is another parent's "freedom," especially when it comes to his or her child's education.
God commanded his followers to "train a child in the way he should go," giving parents much responsibility for their child's formation (Prov. 22:6). I am not a parent, but I have good ones, who exercised a lot of say over what I was taught and exposed to as a child. I would not want to grant any judge or politician the right to circumvent my parents' authority, whether on religion or policy.
Still, I admit that various issues can complicate the priority of parental rights. For instance, regarding the controversy over Obama's school speech, Albert Mohler said that it "smacks of disrespect for the President" when Christians criticize every move Obama makes. Meanwhile, in Ohio, the parents of Rifqa Bary wait in limbo for a judge to decide if their daughter can be kept away from them: she says they are dangerous, but there is no evidence proving them unfit. Is it ever justifiable for a government to take a parent's choice out of their hands?
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