The ink was hardly dry on Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s authorization for local health authorities to determine in-person school reopening this fall when Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton declared that religious schools would be exempt from any such restrictions.
In what weird alternative world are private religious schools not subject to the laws of nature in COVID-19 transmission like public schools?
If you think that colorful piece of illogic escaped Ken Paxton’s attention, you are wrong. He just can’t help himself from consistently violating the federal and state constitutions in his legal bias against public schools and toward private religious ones.
This outrageous guidance letter might be forgiven if it weren’t so dangerous, not just for Texas, where he has authority, but by extension to the rest of the nation because of the precedent his opinion would set. In today’s political climate, the Texas attorney general does not act in isolation.
First, Paxton’s view is dangerous to children and teachers in church schools to excuse those schools from following health orders implemented for the safety of everyone in the community. With the exception of a few elite private schools, most church schools are commensurate with public schools in per pupil costs.
Quite simply, this means they do not possess the resources of public schools in providing protection and prevention measures in the wake of our pandemic: daily and twice-daily disinfectant procedures, face and desk shields, physical distancing. Children and adults attending in-person religious schools will place themselves and everyone else at unnecessary risk.
“In what weird alternative world are private religious schools not subject to the laws of nature in COVID-19 transmission like public schools?”
A child’s education is intimate and personal in nature. It is a face-to-face, eyeball-to-eyeball encounter between a teacher and a pupil, particularly on early grade levels. If we have discovered anything in our required stay-at-home orders this spring, so vital to the protection of us all, it is the irreplaceable value of incarnational presence. This is particularly the case in religious communities, the very ones Ken Paxton claims are exempted.
The damnable truth right now is that such close physicality, for sustained periods of time, places our teachers, our students — indeed, all of us — at increased risk.
Ken Paxton knows this. He chomps at the bit to promote his fiction that religious liberty is for some but not all. As soon as the Texas Education Agency issued their ruling yesterday, his charged out of the gate too.
And if private religious schools are exempt from city and county mandates on health due to a global pandemic, will they also be exempt from other health codes? Will their buildings no longer be subject to inspection for building safety codes? Will the county health department not be allowed to monitor food safety in the school cafeterias?
“Texans have a culture warrior as our head lawyer, and this war is not just for Texas.”
Second, it is dangerous to the immortal principle of religious liberty and its legal corollary, the separation of church and state. Why do religious schools deserve any waiver of public health restrictions applied to the community at large for the safety and protection of its citizens? Why this establishment of religion that accords a particular special consideration for church schools?
Here’s why: Texans have a culture warrior as our head lawyer, and this war is not just for Texas; it is for the soul of our nation. Ken Paxton subscribes to a Tea Party revisionist reading of the First Amendment that diverges from the one that built America. He hardly misses an opportunity to use government to establish his particular brand of religion in the public square.
When same-sex marriage was legalized, he told county clerks they would have government protection for the free exercise of their religion if they refused to issue same-sex couples marriage licenses. On the other hand, when educators in the North Dallas community of Frisco provided Muslim kids a secure room for their prayers — the free exercise of their religion — Paxton criticized the accommodation as an unconstitutional establishment of religion.
More recently, when the Supreme Court ruled that Montana’s private school tax credit program couldn’t disqualify religious schools, he hailed it as a great victory for religious liberty, while groups such as the BJC, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, and Pastors for Children decried the decision.
There are many other examples to show that if your religion differs from Ken Paxton’s, it might just not be as free as you think it is.
The most dangerous implication of Ken Paxton’s ruling is the apparent preference it shows for religious private schools over those provided by the public. The attorney general has long been a proponent of private school voucher programs that divert public tax dollars for the subsidy of private schools, including religious schools.
While the Texas State Constitution in Article 7, Section 1, mandates that the Texas Legislature “make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools,” voucher plans are specifically designed for underwriting private schools, thereby violating not only Lone Star State law but also the principle of the common good and the public trust. In short, these are the reasons Texans have repudiated voucher policies time and again over the last couple of decades.
So on the one hand the Texas attorney general wants to classify private religious schools as being just like public schools in their ability to receive public funding. And on the other hand he says private schools are different than public schools when it comes to health mandates. This is illogical and exposes the lie of taxpayer funding for private religious schools.
The animus of the attorney general toward public schools isn’t lost on Texas educators. In 2018, he issued a “cease and desist” letter to school districts throughout the state complaining that their promotion of voting violated Texas election codes, that the campaign to foster civic engagement and duty — the expressed written curricular responsibility of Texas public educators, by the way — amounted to “electioneering.”
Could this current preferential treatment of religious private schools, in the face of spiking coronavirus, be yet another ploy to hurt public schools? Educators all over Texas are asking that question of themselves and each other, and educators across the nation should be concerned as well. At the very time when these first responders to our children need and deserve our state leaders to encourage them, they get another slap in the face instead.
You don’t have to squint to see right through Ken Paxton’s thinly veiled project to leverage his legal position and interpret Texas law for his own political ends. In his world, America is a Christian nation, the government’s job is to advance it, public schools threaten it, and the common good is subservient to it.
An alternative world. But very real to revisionists like Ken Paxton. He won’t stop until he has replaced our state with it. And because of the influence Texas has on the nation as a whole, lovers of true religious liberty everywhere ought to be on red alert.
Charles Foster Johnson is founder and executive director of Pastors for Children, an advocacy group supporting public education. He lives in Fort Worth, Texas.