News and Notes: Defending the Educational Wall of Separation

Published by Minnesota Atheists on

By George Francis Kane

Head shot of George, smiling in jacket and tie.

In 1985, the Minnesota Legislature instituted a program for high school students to take classes at accredited colleges to receive both college and high school credit. This Postsecondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) program provided funds to pay to the postsecondary institution (PSI) the cost of enrollment in the classes.

This program has worked, apparently successfully, for nearly 40 years. This session, however, legislators have taken notice that it has provided state funding for several PSIs that require all student applicants to sign a statement of faith. They have proposed an insertion into the Education Funding bill that “An eligible institution must not require a faith statement during the application process.”

The requirement for statements of faith from the students clearly discriminates against students of other faiths who are denied the opportunity to take these classes. This violates the Minnesota Human Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination in education based on religion or creed. The PSIs claim a religious exemption from this law based upon the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

Fair enough. Bethel and Northwestern are religious schools, with an expressive mission to promote Christianity, so no one disputes their right to exclude students who do not accept the statement of faith that they require. This is a recognition of their constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religious exercise. They are not, however, entitled to a subsidy from the State of Minnesota to undermine its Human Rights Act.

I came across an article on the website, under the headline “Minnesota Legislature Targets Religious Higher Education,” excoriating the denial of this state benefit as official anti-religious bias. It states:

Secular universities, just like religious ones, do promote a worldview; they just do not always do so as overtly or transparently as religious institutions. Under Minnesota’s proposed regulation, colleges that carefully and intentionally lay out their worldview (i.e., religious institutions) will be penalized, while state and non-religious institutions will be rewarded with more students and, from that, greater ideological power.

Does the option to attend religious colleges via government funding mean that the government is promoting a religious worldview? And, if it does, doesn’t the option to attend secular colleges also promote another worldview?

The state is not providing public funding for a worldview, but for something that directly benefits the public, such as education in mathematics or engineering. Not all worldviews are of equivalent interest to government. Like universities, the state has its own worldview, important tenets of which are religious freedom and opposition to discrimination. The citizenry can have religious freedom only if the government has none. Government is forbidden by the Establishment Clause to favor any religion over any other, or over non-religion. This should prohibit the state from providing public funding for an institution with an educational mission to promote a specific form of conservative Christianity. These institutions also are claiming exemption from laws forbidding religious discrimination in public accommodations. This extends their demand beyond mere religious freedom, to a privileged claim to government funding because of their religious nature. It turns the meaning of the Establishment Clause on its head.

The article continues:

As any PSEO student knows, there’s no obligation for students to choose a religious college: High schoolers who don’t want to commit to a set of stated beliefs have plenty of secular educational options to choose from. While we shouldn’t force a worldview upon students, some high schoolers genuinely want a college experience at a religious institution. The least we can do is give them the choice.

The state is not denying any student the right to take a class at a religious school, nor is it denying any college the right to insist on a statement of faith from student applicants. The student will just have to pay for it. The PSEO program provides an opportunity to participating students and schools, not an entitlement. To be eligible for state funding, the schools must bring their application process into compliance with Minnesota’s Human Rights Act.

Categories: Articles

Minnesota Atheists

Positive Atheism in Action Since 1991