Patrick McIlheran continues the discussion teaching morality in public schools without religion. Can it be done? Ought it to be done?
My own view is that this is an area where government should tread lightly but it cannot refuse to tread. Or, perhaps more accurately, has chosen to tread.
You can, under current conditions, teach simple ideas of right and wrong without getting into religion. But that is not where the conversation is likely to end. If schools start to teach about more difficult questions or how one hues to moral standards under difficult circumstances, then two things start to happen. First, schools will inevitably begin to approach those questions in ways that are inconsistent with some of the religious beliefs of its pupils. I think that this cannot be avoided but it certainly belies the idea that we can achieve some type of neutrality between religion and irreligion. We can't so some other principle must define and limit what the state can and cannot do.
In a slightly different way, the absence of any religious perspective - where it is, under the faith traditions of students - clearly pertinent itself reflects a type of judgement on - and socialization into - what is and is not permitted in public discourse. If one thinks that secularism is preferred or is some type of neutral default position, this is not problematic. But if you, as do most of us and even the Court itself, reject the former proposition and believe, as I have argued that the latter is not possible, it is very problematic.
It's one thing to say that religious formation is the province of the churches and families. I believe that is so. But when government, through the public schools and otherwise, involves itself with areas with which that formation is inextricably intertwined, there is no neutral ground.
This doesn't mean that I believe that government ought to teach religion. It means that I don't think separation or nonendorsement or nonadvancement are helpful concepts. We ought to focus on the extent to which government recognition of religion constitutes a traditional establishment, is truly coercive or significantly burdens the ability of dissenters to be full members of civil society. Christmas decorations, prayers at graduation, moments of silence or allowing students to present religious themed work - all fertile grounds for litigation - doesn't do that. Being oblivious to the religious insult associated with secular messages doesn't do that.
The second thing that happens is we risk losing the foundation of these moral principles that we more or less agree on today. Propositions about the equality of all and the dignity of the person are not self evident and have not always been widely believed. They triumphed in the west as a result of a Christianity seen through the lens of the Enlightenment (This is not to say that they are not recognized in other religious traditions; properly understood.). Today we assume these values and argue about what they mean. We do not defend them. This does not mean that they cannot be lost.