"School vouchers have long been a pet cause of Christian school advocates who want to shore up profits and increase their ranks. In 2002, the United States Supreme Court ruled that public funds designated for private school tuition were not an infringement on church/state separation. That gave private Christian school advocates a green light to promote vouchers for themselves.
Though vouchers have become legal in some states, like Ohio, others, like North Carolina, are still holding out. Either way, Christian school advocates show no signs of slowing down their efforts. One reason vouchers remain so contested is that they sometimes fund activities in private Christian schools that many American taxpayers would not want to support. Here are 10 strange things that happen at Christian schools that may give you pause next time vouchers are debated in your state:
1. Inflammatory anti-choice rhetoric. You might think grade school is a bit young to start learning violent anti-choice rhetoric. Luke Jones, who graduated from an Alabama Church of Christ school in 2004, tells AlterNet it started around the sixth grade. “I remember my English teacher passing around shocking photographs of dismembered babies. That was where I learned about abortion.” The pictures that feature in these discussions usually picture late-term fetuses terminated as a result of natural miscarriage. This means that they are not at all reflective of aborted fetuses in general, and give children a skewed – and overly emotive – reaction to a medical service.
Material from a 2005 anti-choice handbook called Abortion: From Debate to Dialogue is sometimes used to teach students how to argue with people who are pro-choice. Among the misinformation contained in its pages, the handbook teaches students that serious conditions like preeclampsia, eclampsia, placental previa and placental abruption do not usually endanger a pregnant woman’s life. Moreover, it implies, questions about a woman’s health are just distractions.
Strategies meant to help anti-choicers seem nice in abortion debates may be practiced in classroom role-playing activities. For example, the handbook says, anti-choice proponents sometimes “appear callous by showing no concern for women who die.” Pro-choice advocates, the handbook assures students, sometimes ask about this “to see if you have compassion on the circumstances of women… If you don’t show concern for these women in the midst of your response, you lose.” In other words, women’s well-being is not really the point – anti-choicers must learn to feign compassion for women in order to win arguments.
Some Christian schools use a controversial film – Ray Comfort’s 180 Movie – to insert talking points conflating abortion with the Holocaust.
2. Hands-on anti-choice activism. Sometimes Christian schools go beyond teaching anti-choice propaganda by encouraging students to get involved in anti-choice activism. Oklahoma’s Augustine Christian Academy helped mobilize students to participate in Tulsa’s annual March for Life this year. The school’s Web site still features information about the January protest that instructed students how to get involved. Some Christian schools even transported students to the much bigger March for Life in Washington, DC. A Catholic school in Lafayette brought busloads of students to the Capitol for the event. Not only this, but the school made a weeklong field trip of the march that also included a pro-life mass at the National Basilica and a tour of the Mount Saint Mary’s and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Shrine, where students would honor saints revered by the Catholic anti-choice movement.
Christian schools also arrange opportunities for students to assist crisis pregnancy centers – that is, anti-choice organizations set up to look like abortion clinics when their real goal is to convince young women to carry their pregnancy to term. Some schools, like Maryland’s Connelly School of the Holy Child, feature school clubs that organize fund drives to benefit the centers. Others, like Tri-Cities Christian Schools of Tennessee, encourage students to become directly involved in volunteer work at crisis pregnancy centers in the state, where they may assist with anything from filing to conducting intake interviews.
Some Christian schools even schedule field trips in which students are transported to an abortion clinic for a protest. Fundamentalist homeschoolers throughout the country have been hosting such field trips for years, but Christian schools have taken up the practice more recently. Pro-Life Wisconsin organizes Christian school field trips that include prayer vigils outside abortion clinics.
3. Christian sex-ed. In the mid- to late-1980s, evangelical Christians began campaigning to promote abstinence-only education in public schools. Though abstinence-only education remains contested in public schools, it has long been the order of the day in Christian schools. Many schools pressure students to take virginity pledges from Passion 2 Purity Pledge or True Love Waits in which they promise never to have sex outside heterosexual marriage.
A South Carolina curriculum called Heritage Keepers teaches that “[s]ex is like fire. Inside the appropriate boundary of marriage, sex is a great thing! Outside of marriage, sex can be dangerous.” Rather than thinking too much about sex, the curriculum encourages students to think about the qualities they desire in a future spouse and to envision what their wedding day might be like. One example, directed at girls: “Your true love stands at the front. This is the man who you have waited for (remained abstinent for) and who has waited for you…This man wants to be strong and courageous for you, to cherish and protect you… You are ready to trust him with all that you have and all that you are, because you have waited (sexually) you have it all to give.”
If that weren’t groan-worthy enough, many abstinence-only programs teach objectively false information. Heritage Keepers notably claims that condom use results in pregnancy one in seven times.
A curriculum called Why kNOw? tells sixth graders, “WARNING! Going on this ride could change your life forever, result in poverty, heartache, disease, and even DEATH.” At the eighth-grade level, students learn that “premature birth, infant pneumonia, and neonatal eye infections may result from transmission of [Chlamydia] during delivery…” and “If [syphilis] treated (sic) is not received, a pregnant woman will usually transmit the disease to the unborn child. Stillbirth and death within the neonatal period occur in 25% of these cases.”
If evangelicals really believe the consequences of sex are usually this dire, it’s no wonder some schools go a step beyond abstinence-only education and encourage students not to date at all. Inspired by a trend in the homeschool movement called “courtship,” a parent-directed, supervised form of dating, some schools use Joshua Harris’ popular book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, in their curriculum. Harris makes the unsubstantiated claim that dating – and break-ups – in the teenage years encourage young people to forego committed relationships and may set them up for painful divorce later in life. Courtship proponents also argue that dating is too risky for teens since sexual temptation is too much to bear.
4. Intolerance. Since September 11, 2001, Christian schools have become increasingly Islamophobic. In 2010, the Texas State Board of Education ignited a national controversy when it “voted to scrub [public school] textbooks of anything that smacked of a ‘pro-Islam’ or ‘anti-Christian’ bias.” In other words, public schools would now be required to use school curriculums that whitewash Christians and demonize Muslims. Though relatively new to public education, Islamophobia has long run rampant at Christian schools.
Last May, AlterNet reported that Christian elementary and secondary curriculums A Beka Book, Bob Jones University Publishing, and Accelerated Christian Education teach that Islam is a “false religion.” Rethinking Schools reports that Bob Jones curriculum generally provides a surprisingly unbiased look at Islamic history, but sometimes makes wild claims like, “[T]he darkness of Islamic religion keeps the people of Turkey from Jesus Christ as their savior.” At the seventh-grade level, A Beka attempts to bolster its case against Islam by claiming, “[O]ver 500 people saw the resurrected Jesus Christ, no one witnessed Mohammed’s supposed encounters with the angels.” Not only this, but the curriculum also casts Islam as a “fanatically anti-Christian.”
Many Christian school teachers also create lesson plans based on the teachings of self-styled “historian” David Barton, who has wasted many, many articles on “anti-Shariah” fear-mongering. At his own Web site, Wallbuilders, Barton waxes paranoid about what he calls President Obama’s “preferential treatment of Muslims and Muslim nations” and contrasts this with what he interprets as Obama’s “anti-Biblical” positions when, “In fact, there have been numerous clearly documented times when his pro-Islam positions have been the cause of his anti-Biblical actions.” Most of his backing “evidence” is pretty vague. For example, Barton alleges that, in August 2010, Obama spoke “with great praise of Islam and condescendingly of Christianity.”
5. Punishment by gender. Teachers in Christian schools sometimes stereotype boys as more rambunctious and rebellious than girls. In practice, this means that boys are often the targets of harsher corporal punishment. In 2007, a Chicago school was sued for injury and surgical costs after a forcing a 14-year-old boy to kneel in place for nine days, causing a hip injury. A few years later, in 2011, a Christian school teacher in Orlando was arrested on charges of beating a boy at her home with a rusted broom handle.
Many Christian schools punish girls more harshly because of perceived sexual acting out. In 2009, a California appeals court upheld a Christian school’s decision to expel two female students simply because administrators suspected they were involved in a same-sex relationship. Just last year, a 15-year-old girl was expelled from another California school for writing on Facebook that she was bisexual. Luke Jones tells AlterNet of an incident he remembers from high school, when a boy and girl were caught having sex in a school bathroom. The boy “got suspended for a little while but then came back,” but the girl was expelled for the remainder of the school year.
6. Pregnancy expulsions and firings. Punishing girls who have sex also extends to pregnancy. In recent years, some students have started fighting back with lawsuits on the basis of “civil rights violations due to discrimination based on race, sex and pregnancy.” In 2009, Arkansas parents sued their daughter’s Christian school when she was expelled for pregnancy. She said she had been treated like she had a “communicable disease.” (Ironically, the blowback girls get for out-of-wedlock pregnancies may end up encouraging abortion — several sources report girls in their schools turning to abortion in order to remain in school.)
In some schools, it’s not just students who are punished for getting pregnant out of wedlock. Cathy Samford was a 39-year-old teacher at a Christian school in Texas when she was fired for getting pregnant while in a long-term committed relationship. The school alleged that the award-winning teacher had violated its “morals clause.” A New York preschool teacher sued her former school for the same treatment in 2005. The school’s justification? A school handbook requiring every teacher to “convey the teachings of the Catholic faith by his or her words or actions.” There are no well-publicized cases of male teachers being fired for impregnating adult women.
7. Revisionist evangelical history classes. In conservative Christian schools, historical events are filtered through the literal Biblical creation story, and can be understood in the context of sin, redemption and “God’s plan” for the United States. On its own Web site, Bob Jones boasts that its US history curriculum includes “special attention…to God’s providence and America’s Christian heritage.” A Beka curriculum opens with a full-on endorsement of theocracy, stating, “All governments are ordained by God, but none compare to government by God, theocracy.”From there, the curriculum pushes the false belief that the United States was founded as a Christian nation.
The racist history of the United States is usually whitewashed or romanticized in Christian school curriculum. Writing for AlterNet Rachel Tabachnik highlighted the following in a Bob Jones text: “To help them endure the difficulties of slavery, God gave Christian slaves the ability to combine the African heritage of song with the dignity of Christian praise. Through the Negro spiritual, the slaves developed the patience to wait on the Lord and discovered that the truest freedom is from the bondage of sin.” Another A Beka textbook says, “A few slave holders were undeniably cruel. Examples of slaves beaten to death were not common, neither were they unknown. The majority of slave holders treated their slaves well.” Even the Klan gets whitewashed. A Bob Jones textbook states that “the Klan in some areas of the country tried to be a means of reform, fighting the decline in morality and using the symbol of the cross to target bootleggers, wife beaters and immoral movies.”
These curriculums also engage in a fair amount of Red Scare tactics. Liberalism is conflated with socialism, and a liberal is said to be “a person who believes government should have more control over people’s lives[;] that government through taxes should provide for more of people’s needs[;] and that Biblical traditional values are not strong considerations.” The same curriculum teaches that every social welfare program in US history is evidence of “creeping socialism.” In the editors’ own words, “A serious flaw developed in American culture during the Cold War period as America began to drift away from the institutions and heritage that made her great. For example, the US government continued to move toward socialism following the `New Deal’; under the Kennedy, Johnson, and Carter administrations, government spending grew enormously as welfare programs sapped the economy and resulted in a heavier tax burden upon the American people.”
8. Creationism-only science. Many Christian schools teach young earth Christian creationism – that is, the idea that God literally created the earth, humans and animals in seven days, all of 4,000 years ago – in lieu of learning about evolution. A Beka boasts that its “Science and Health Program presents the universe as the direct creation of God and refutes the man-made idea of evolution.”
Kentucky’s Creation Museum hosts field trips for Christian school groups. Its Web site boasts that “thousands of students like yours have received answers to the tough questions they face in today’s culture.”
Christian author and blogger Rachel Held Evans has written critically about the fact that she never learned anything about evolution over the course of her Christian education. When she found the information years later she “felt betrayed – by my teachers, by my church, by my culture.”
9. Ridiculous dress codes, mostly for girls. The idea that modest dress among girls tempers teen hormones is magical thinking, but it has never gone out of fashion at Christian schools. As a result, these schools maintain strict dress codes, especially for female students. A California school made headlines in 2005 for enforcing a dress code on its cheerleaders to make them seem more “wholesome.” That meant skirts no more than four inches raised above the knees. One school in Indiana doesn’t even allow dresses during school. Instead, girls have to wear jumpers and skirts of a “boxy character with no slits.” Several other sources report knee-length skirts and loose, boxy tops. Though the regulations differ from school to school, their purpose remains the same — to somehow prevent boys from entertaining lustful thoughts about their female peers.
10. Proms without dancing. Christian schools often have pretty strong opinions about dancing. They tend to be against it. The original Footloose film, in which Kevin Bacon challenges a school’s prohibition on dancing, seems extremely dated to most contemporary viewers. But in 2009, an Ohio student was suspended from his Christian school for attending a public school prom. Respected evangelical publication Christianity Today explains that objection to dancing among Christians started in the very beginning: “[D]ance played a prominent role in many pagan cults, such as the orgiastic cult of Dionysius. Because early Christians in no way wished to be associated with such rites, they most likely avoided dancing in church, though their intense, sometimes ecstatic worship…may well have included motions of some sort. Christians avoided social dancing, too, as it was usually associated with drinking and sexual immorality in Roman culture.”
Even now, a quick Internet search for the term “Christian prom” turns up a host of ongoing evangelical debates about whether or not Christian students should be permitted to attend a secular prom and/or dance in any social context. But how are these regulations keeping up with loosening cultural mores? Luke Jones says that his fundamentalist school prohibited “all forms of social dancing,” but that this led to some very odd rituals. Every year, his school held “what they called a Junior/Senior Banquet.” Students “would get together a fancy menu, dress up with all the same stuff you’d have at a normal prom with a corsage and boutonniere,” but there would be no dancing. He says the affair was “pretty starched” – that is, until what came next. When it was over, students would leave the premises, and “there would usually be a second event that was an unofficial addition to the banquet. It was usually hosted nearby in a different venue. In our case, it was held across the street in a different hotel.” What came next was “just the dancing part of prom. You’d walk into a room, and there was the dance floor, and everybody was dancing.” The school did not formally sanction this event, but because social attitudes were changing, it didn’t try to prevent it either. Parents hosted the ostensibly salacious dancing event, allowing the school to relax its approach to the rules without changing them on paper.
Supporters of school vouchers usually speak in very broad terms about supporting “religious schools,” but they are often reluctant to talk specifics. Instead, they prefer to focus on intellectual niche schools that focus, for example, on classical education or fine arts. That is because of, as you can see, the peculiar beliefs and behaviors documented at these schools. It would be an exaggeration to argue that all private Christian schools provide a poor education, but perhaps we need to think twice about spending public money diverted from public schools to private religious schools.
Kristin Rawls is a freelance writer whose work has also appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, GOOD Magazine, Religion Dispatches, Killing the Buddha, Global Comment and elsewhere online."