Joseph Backholm is Senior Fellow for Biblical Worldview and Political Engagement at Family Research Council. This article appeared in WORLD Magazine on May 11, 2022.
For weeks, the nation debated over whether teachers in Florida should be allowed to talk to young children about sex. It turns out that many adults see it as a matter of human dignity. As a result, when the Florida legislature passed a law prohibiting lessons about sex and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade, some teachers in the state said they would quit. One such educator, Nicolette Solomon, told NBC News, “Nobody would be able to know, which then puts me in the closet, and I’m there seven hours a day, if not more, five days a week. I wouldn’t be able to be who I am.”
In the past, adults avoided talking to children about their sexual interests or habits as a matter of decency. But these days, the right to “live authentically” is seen by many as more important than even the innocence of children.
This isn’t to say that those on the left have no standards. Despite the rhetoric about the Florida law, they do worry about the effect authority figures might have on children. Take, for example, the case of Joe Kennedy, the high school assistant football coach in Washington state who was fired from his job for praying on the field after games. What began as a personal moment of prayer became more when students asked if they could join him. The Marine veteran reportedly told the players, “This is a free country,” and many of them did join him. Eventually, it became a sizeable, brief, and voluntary event. When the school district became aware, they told him to stop. The coach’s refusal to cease and desist cost him his job.
On April 25, the U.S. Supreme Court held oral arguments in Kennedy’s case to determine if his firing was legal. Was the prayer a constitutionally protected expression of personal faith or coercion by a government employee? Justice Elena Kagan said prayer by school employees is concerning because it “puts a kind of undue pressure, a kind of coercion on students to participate in religious activities when they may not wish to, when their religion is different, or when they have no religion.”
Justice Kagan’s statement brings us back to Florida. After all, her concerns about the “coercive” effects of school prayer are precisely why many parents don’t want their kindergarteners told boys can become girls and that the best thing to do when it happens is celebrate. It creates pressure to agree.
These days, the right to “live authentically” is seen by many as more important than even the innocence of children.
What if, instead of praying, coach Kennedy went to the center of the field and said a few words about the importance of LGBT allyship and condom usage instead? People would still be upset—it would just be different people.
The problem is not teachers and coaches using their authority to shape the values and behavior of children. That’s what we hire them to do. The problem is the lack of shared agreement over what teachers and coaches should be teaching children to value and do. Public schools were created to serve the common good, but that job is more difficult when our concept of good is disputed.
In many ways, we are still working through a long cultural divorce. Half of us believe God is the solution, and half believe God is the problem. Half of us think America is wonderful, and half think it’s terrible. Half of us believe following our heart is the key to happiness, and half believe following our heart is the reason we’re so miserable. It is very difficult for these sides to run an education system together because there is no agreement on the purpose of education. One side is horrified by LGBT indoctrination. The other is horrified by public prayer.
It seems the difference between “coercion” and “leadership” could be in the eye of the beholder.
In many ways, the fight over what should happen in the public schools is a dispute over assets in our cultural divorce. Both sides want the schools because both sides understand that schools have a lot of power. Meanwhile, parents need to accept that education is inherently coercive and make sure the influences in our children’s lives are pushing them in the right direction. That’s the responsibility of Christian parents—and we had better know which direction is the right one.