Religious schools must discriminate

Posted: Jun 16, 2006 12:01 AM

As the academic year winds down, there's cause for mourning in some neighborhoods in New York City, where some schools will be closing their doors for good. They're not just any schools -- and I'm not just saying that because the school where I spent my first eight years was nearly among them. They're Catholic schools that have achieved miracles.

Besides doing easily quantifiable things -- teaching disadvantaged students at half the cost of public schools -- they often distinguish themselves from nearby public schools in another important way.

As one principal explained to Manhattan Institute education expert Sol Stern (for Stern's book "Breaking Free" (Encounter Books, 2005)): "We are here to educate and empower these kids, to do two things with them. One is to make sure that they learn how to read, write and do math -- every day. The other is to form the character. We believe in the divinity of being; we believe in the holiness of our existence. That infuses the culture we're in."

But next fall, the Big Apple is going to come up nine schools short. Stern calls it a "tragedy," but there's far more peril afoot.

Just as some of these schools were beginning to close up shop for good, "People" magazine ran an article on a Catholic school teacher in Appleton, Wis., who was fired for artificially conceiving her twins. Immediately, you're outraged: At a Catholic school? Aren't they pro-life? Don't they want to encourage pregnancies and discourage abortions?

Well, perhaps. But the teacher was reportedly fired for using in vitro fertilization to conceive. That's a tough one; your heart breaks for a couple who want to conceive but just can't on their own. But IVF, as it is regularly practiced, involves, however unintentionally, the destruction of embryos, and for that reason, among others, it's not something the Catholic Church wants to encourage. A Catholic school teacher plays a unique role in being both a role model and a living embodiment of what the Church teaches. And, as high an order as that may be, it's a role a teacher signs up for when she agrees to teach in a Catholic school.

About two years ago, The New York Times Magazine ran a piece by a young woman who found herself pregnant. Upon learning that she was having triplets, she opted to selectively reduce -- get rid of two of them. The words "selective reduction" were new to a lot of readers that Sunday. And if reactions I heard were any indication, people wondered how far we had come toward a "Brave New World," embracing a sterile phrase to describe this practice. Does this mean that it's too late to turn back?

Maybe. Maybe not. One way you can reverse a culture's direction is by teaching children differently. At religious schools, where morals-training is part of the package, educators have a unique and powerful opportunity -- and with that comes great responsibility. As Vatican official Archbishop J. Michael Miller, secretary of the Congregation for Catholic Education, recently explained: "To fulfill their responsibility ... educators in Catholic schools, with very few exceptions, should be practicing Catholics who are committed to the Church and living her sacramental life. Despite the difficulties sometimes involved, those responsible for hiring teachers must see to it that these criteria are met."

The case in Wisconsin isn't the first of its kind, or the first to make headlines. Earlier this year, a single female teacher in New York City found herself pregnant and, before long, the center of controversy. She accused the school of sex discrimination for firing her because of her pregnancy. Anyone who values the protection of human life must hesitate to do or support anything that would discourage anyone with child from having the child -- so the first thing I want to know is whether that teacher was offered any help she needed, by friends, family and church. But the school also has the right to say: We can't have you teaching here if you are having a child out of wedlock. It's not what's we're about.

Catholic schools have the right to be Catholic and -- considering what they contribute -- Americans should want them to be. As Anthony Picarello of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty puts it to me, "Religious schools are where religious groups transmit their message from one generation to the next. And whoever controls hiring controls the message. So keeping the government out of those teacher-hiring decisions is separation of church and state in the best sense."