Public schools should not be a religious battleground

York Dispatch editorial board

BJ Volkert invoked his Christianity as the reason he stepped down as a Northeastern School Board member, saying his religious beliefs were not compatible with the job at hand.

And we could not agree more.

Among other things said during Volkert's short-lived tenure, the Baptist youth pastor publicly mused that issues surrounding gender and sexuality had no place in discussions around diversity.

"If Jesus Christ does not make his way back into schools, things will continue to make its way into the lives of our children that we are not fans of ultimately,” he said, during his exit speech less than a year after he was elected to the school board.

More:York County's 2022 homecoming galleries

More:White's career day leads York High past Dallastown in 66-49 barnburner

More: Pregnant mother's stabbing death came at height of ongoing, 12-year child custody battle

To be fair, Volkert never came right out and said what specific things are troubling him. What is clear is that he's not happy with the separation of church and state.

His actual exit speech, of course, contained some real head-scratchers as his thoughts meandered past George Washington's bloodletting and into the seaworthiness of Noah's Ark. This was not a graceful "thank you and good bye" kind of resignation.

But unlike some other public officials at the local, state and national level, Volkert at least had the wisdom to not try to shoehorn his personal religious beliefs into the curriculum of a school funded by taxpayers of all faiths — and by agnostics and atheists, too.

Volkert simply left.

Former Northeastern School Board member BJ Volkert left the school board when it became clear to him he could not stay. Bible Baptist Church photo

For that, at least, we give him credit.

Our schools have increasingly become a battleground for conservative ideologues pushing book bans, school-sanctioned prayer and a steady drumbeat of anti-LGBTQ policy and rhetoric.

All of this flies in the face of a key American value. Faith is an essential part of our daily lives and our belief — whatever that belief is — should inform how we treat each other.

But the U.S. Constitution's freedom of religion also protects freedom from religion, too.

We are all free to our own beliefs. And we are also free from having beliefs thrust upon us.

James Madison, the father of our Constitution, warned against "a zeal for different opinions concerning religion" in Federalist Paper No. 10.

"No man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause," Madison wrote, "because his interest would certainly bias his judgment, and, not improbably, corrupt his integrity."

To put it even more plainly, there's a simple solution for parents who insist that their children only learn about things that align with their religious beliefs.

Private school.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, 3.5 million of the 54 million American school-age children attended religious schools during the 2019-20 school year.

In regard to Volkert's specific criticism of public schools, there are roughly 600,000 private schools nationwide that describe themselves as "conservative Christian" schools, according to federal data.

Instead of trying to force their narrow view of the Bible on everyone else, we encourage our fundamentalist friends to consider the alternates. And, while they're at it, to cast a glance back to the New Testament and the call to "love thy neighbor as thyself."