Essay By Anastasia Hendricks for
Americans United 2018 Student Essay Contest

The largest threat to church-state separation is within the public education system, particularly in primary and secondary schooling. As increasing amounts of legislation, at both the state and federal level, advocate for the reincorporation of Judeo-Christian beliefs within classrooms, coercion of developing student opinion is ever-present. I have first-hand experience with this issue, as I have participated in protests within my own community against the New Mexico Public Education Department’s (NMPED) initiative to remove mention of evolution from science textbooks. While we were successful in this effort, there are still many states in which the educational environment advocates for religious beliefs as fact. It is difficult to directly correct these wrongs, as public education legislation is left to local state government and many state populations harbor deeply rooted Judeo-Christian traditional values that non-residents cannot influence through local elections. This leaves us but one choice: to strengthen the protections of church-state separation at the federal level by laying the foundations for an accountability system for public education.

Within the past year there have been multiple public schools and state legislative changes that have gained ground in closing the separation between church and state in various states. These efforts are less likely to get significant word-of-mouth and news coverage, as the media is often distracted by the dealings of the federal government to properly notice the attempts made to undermine American values at the local level. This, in addition to the fact that these initiatives are state-centric concerns, allows these stories to fall through the cracks, and this lack of awareness, as well as the targeting of young people, is what makes the issue so particularly dangerous. 

In recent months, many state legislatures have approved a push to display religious state mottos in public schools, such as Arizona’s motto “Ditat Deus,” or “God Enriches” which could pave the way for other states, considering state mottos such as Colorado’s “Nil sine numine” or “Nothing without the deity,” and Ohio’s “With God, all things are possible.” (“Arizona Lawmakers Approve Displaying State Motto in Schools”) Many residents of Arizona advocate for the historical significance of this display within classrooms; however, the bill does not require any explanation accompanying the state motto. Moreover, both Florida and Tennessee legislatures have signed off on similar bills, which allow public schools to display “In God We Trust.” In a similar strain of concerns, this year Mississippi’s congress proposed a bill which mandated that “principals and teachers in each public elementary and secondary school of each school district in [the] state shall display...the Ten Commandments in each classroom and the following motto… ‘IN GOD WE TRUST.’” It further encourages teachers to read the Ten Commandments at the beginning of the school day, blurring the line between historical relevance and religious coercion. (Mississippi, state) 

I, too, have had personal experience with subtle, yet threatening, efforts to reinstate faith into my state’s public schooling. In the past year, NMPED proposed a change to the state curriculum which omitted the requirement to teach the theory of evolution, the concept of climate change, and scientific findings concerning the age of the earth. This struck me as an obvious attempt to skew the science curriculum away from scientific method and fact, while allowing public schools to approach science with an ambiguity that suggests answers commonly found within the Old and New Testaments, such as the origin of man, the earth, and the uncompromisable moral stewardship of man in relation to nature. In reaction to this, my school administration promptly organized an optional excursion to the NMPED building in Santa Fe on the day the state legislature was in session for the proposed curriculum change. As a school, those dedicated to upholding church-state separation within public education, including myself, banded together to protest the changes. We were far from alone, as people from all over the state flooded the building to hear the session, with many more protesting outside with signs and speeches. As a result, most of the glaring proposed changes were voted down, but some excerpts surrounding scientific research were still omitted or shortened: from a proposed 35 passages to six in total. (Lee, Morgan) 

While many concerned individuals would rather point to U.S. Secretary of Public Education Betsy Devos’ famous claim that her purpose with educational work is to “advance God’s kingdom” (Astrow, Aliza), I believe we need to focus more on local legislature in coordination with the federal government if we are to ensure that church-state separation within public education is to remain intact. Since education legislation remains within the jurisdiction of the states, this may create issues in particular states that are known to have heightened religious values with a lower diversity of faiths, such as the commonly named “Bible-Belt” states. As much as I, a New Mexico resident, feel that public school officials in Texas should not allow textbooks to omit teaching evolution, there seems to be little I can do, as I can’t vote with my conscience in their elections. For this reason, I propose that state legislation regarding education be treated similarly to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, with special attention to Section Five. While the act concerned anti-discrimination efforts in voting, it had an interesting take on federal regulation of state legislation that I believe could be applied here. As a whole, “Section 5 was designed to ensure that voting changes in covered jurisdictions could not be implemented...until a favorable determination [had] been obtained” (“About Section 5 Of The Voting Rights Act”). With a similar act, proposed education legislation in specific states would be subject to oversight from the federal government before it could be signed into law, and thus legislation that threatens church-state separation could be easily identified and removed. The states subject to this regulation would be states which have had numerous complaints against them, and have been previously investigated, for violation of church-state separation. While this solution is not particularly practical, considering the current evangelical presence in the federal government and the polarized political state of the nation, I believe it is a worthwhile future solution nonetheless.

Regardless, the threat to church-state separation within public schooling is a very real issue, as it targets the individuals within our community who are not only disproportionately susceptible to rhetoric and external influences from authority, but are also the most important factor in the future of the U.S. In every community, children and young adults are undergoing the process of developing their own opinions and I fear that recent efforts to amend laws concerning public education are centered largely around teaching students what to think, rather than how to think, with an unmistakable bias towards Judeo-Christian faiths. Children, including myself, are already heavily predisposed to think similarly to their surrounding community, and, should state legislation allow public schooling to reflect the preconceived notions of local communities more than it already does, it may prove disastrous for the nation within a few generations alone. As each generation becomes more accustomed to learning Judeo-Christian faith as truth from state institutions, there will be significantly less room for deviations within thought and religion. This is a core value of the U.S. Constitution which we cannot allow to degrade with the passage of time and increased apathy.


Works Cited:

“About Section 5 Of The Voting Rights Act.” The United States Department of Justice, The United States Department of Justice, www.justice.gov/crt/about-section-5-voting-rights-act.  


“Arizona Lawmakers Approve Displaying State Motto in Schools.” Education Week, Editorial Projects in Education, 4 Apr. 2018, www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2018/04/04/arizona-lawmakers-approve-displaying-state-motto_ap.html.


Astrow, Aliza. “Betsy DeVos and the Threat to Separation of Church and State in Education.” The Century Foundation, Twentieth Century Fund, 26 Sept. 2017, tcf.org/content/commentary/betsy-devos-threat-separation-church-state-education/.


Lee, Morgan. “New Mexico Backtracks on Dropping Evolution in Classrooms.” Las Cruces Sun News, Las Cruces Sun News, 27 Oct. 2017, www.lcsun-news.com/story/news/local/new-mexico/2017/10/27/new-mexico-backtracks-dropping-evolution-classrooms/808644001/.  


Mississippi (state). Legislature. Assembly. AN ACT TO AMEND SECTION 37-13-8, MISSISSIPPI CODE OF 1972, TO REQUIRE A BRIEF PERIOD OF QUIET REFLECTION… 1100. 2018 Reg. Sess. (January 16, 2018). Legiscan LLC. https://legiscan.com/MS/bill/HB1100/2018.