New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is pushing for more government preschool—and pushing religious faith out the door at the same time. Public schools are overcrowded so religious schools are being encouraged to consider providing more preschool programs—but there’s a catch.
A memo from the city to religious schools last May made clear that the city officials intend to regulate religious instruction right out of faith-based schools’ classrooms. So, while Jewish schools would be allowed to bake Challah, no one can say blessings over it. Crucifixes will be allowed in some Catholic school classrooms but not others. As The New York Times reports:
These are the kinds of church-state gymnastics that New York City and some religious schools are performing as Mayor Bill de Blasio expands government-funded prekindergarten. Because of inadequate public school capacity, the de Blasio administration has been urging religious schools and community organizations to consider hosting the added programs.
But the push is raising fresh questions for civil libertarians concerned about church-state issues, and for the schools themselves, which want to help the city and qualify for its roughly $10,000-per-student tuition payments while preserving some of the faith-based elements that attract their main clientele.
The concerns crystallized in a one-page document the city issued in May to religious schools weighing whether to host full-day prekindergarten classes. Rather than state simply, as other municipalities have, that all religious instruction is prohibited, the city’s guidelines say that religious texts may be taught if they are “presented objectively as part of a secular program of instruction.” Learning about one’s culture is permitted, city officials say, but religious instruction is not.
City officials are providing torturous explanations about what they believe is “cultural,” and what’s “religious.” In effect, faith-based schools would be on shaky ground if they presented Jesus, Moses, or Muhammad as little more than super heroes. As executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union Donna Lieberman, put it: “That’s kind of a ‘give me a break.’”
There are currently more than 30 parental choice programs nationwide that empower parents to choose the faith-based schools they prefer for their children—without all the political nonsense. New York, of course, is not one of them. Sadly, Lieberman’s colleagues in those states are also often part of lawsuits to stop those programs from operating. Fortunately most times parental choice program challenges fail.
The NYC has a great opportunity to look at the dozens of existing parental choice programs for models. Religious leaders in New York should also review the examples of state legislation authorizing those programs because they contain powerful protections against government interference—much less control—over faith-based schools’ missions, practices, and religious instruction.
The mayor is under pressure because he wants 53,000 preschool seats open by September. Religious school leaders in New York should stay strong and not bail the city out until officials agree to uphold and protect the basic right of parents to educate their children as they see fit.