Few speeches delivered by an American leader in the modern era have addressed the cultural crisis facing this country with such clarity, vision, and moral courage as former Attorney General Bill Barr’s remarks Friday to Alliance Defending Freedom.
Accepting ADF’s Edwin Meese Award for “Originalism and Religious Liberty,” Barr argued that “the greatest threat to religious liberty in America today” is “the increasingly militant and extreme secular-progressive climate of our state-run educational system.”
He said that this indoctrination in public schools may well have reached the point of being unconstitutional, and laid out a case for a legal challenge to leftist brainwashing based on the First Amendment. The left-wing curriculum being taught in government-run schools, Barr argued, is so aggressively anti-Christian—and indeed anti-religious—that it represents a violation of the constitutional rights of Americans of faith.
Barr began his remarks with a brief history of America’s approach to public schooling, dividing it into three distinct phases. During the first phase—which encompassed most of American history up until the 1970s—the instruction students received in the public school system was “committed to Judeo-Christian values in the general sense.”
During the second phase which “came in the latter part of the 20th century,” Barr notes, the “the left embarked on a relentless campaign of secularization intent on driving every vestige of religion from the public square.” God was driven out of the curriculum based on the idea that public schools should be entirely neutral toward religion.
But now, Barr said, we are witnessing a third phase. Instead of merely purging schools of religion, “[w]e’re now seeing an affirmative indoctrination with a secular belief system and worldview that is a substitute for religion and is antithetical to the beliefs and values of traditional God-centered religion.”
He cited two examples. The first was the transgender ideology that is permeating public schools across the country. Barr referenced a coloring book distributed to schoolchildren in Iowa public schools which told them that “Everyone gets to choose if they are a girl or a boy or both or neither or someone else, and no one else gets to choose for them.” He said this was a perfect example of a curriculum that flatly contradicts religious teachings not just on sex and gender, but on issues such as the role of parents and natural law.
The former Attorney General went on to describe Critical Race Theory and to illustrate how this new fixture of the public school curriculum is fundamentally incompatible with the Christian worldview, just as traditional Marxism has been widely recognized as diametrically opposed to Christianity.
Barr explained that while teaching such anti-religious beliefs and values in public schools is clearly the basis for a legal challenge based on the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment, he believes the left is also vulnerable to an argument that they are teaching their own kind of religious doctrine—a violation of the Constitution’s prohibition on the establishment of a state religion.
“The tenets of progressive orthodoxy,” Barr argued, “have become a form of religion with all the trappings and hallmarks of a religion. It has its notion of original sin, of salvation. It has its clergy. It has its penance. It has its dogmas, its sensitivity to the whiff of any heresy, and even the burning at the stake, so far only metaphorically.”
Barr then asked the obvious question: “If secular-progressivism indeed occupies the same place as a religion – and by all appearances it does – then how is it constitutional to have state-run schools fervently devoted to teaching little else?”
Barr proceeded to argue that to protect the conscience rights of the American people, the public school system needs to be reformed on the basis of universal school choice. “Public funding of education does not require that instruction must be delivered by means of government-operated schools,” he said. “The alternative is to have public funds travel with each student, allowing the student and the parents to choose the school.”
It was President Trump who remarked last year that school choice is “the civil rights issue of our time.” Barr’s contribution to the education debate is his recognition that school choice is easily the most important religious freedom issue of the day as well. Parents who object to the new religion of the Left being preached in public schools must be given the freedom and the resources to provide for their children’s education in a different setting than what Barr called “the government’s secular-progressive madrassas.”
Barr’s remarks call to mind the famous passage from Justice Jackson’s 1943 opinion in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in matters of politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word their faith therein.” Too many public school classrooms in America today are worship centers for the woke Left to do exactly that.
Barr concluded his remarkable speech by challenging every American parent who cares about their kids and the future of this country to muster the moral courage necessary to confront the Left’s new civil religion being preached daily in the nation’s public schools. Barr argued that “confronting this issue, I think, is the most urgent task for people who are concerned about religious liberty.” “Religious liberty,” Barr said, “is not safe in the United States as long as we have the kind of public school system we have, the forced monopoly and the indoctrination of children into these radical secular progressive orthodoxies.”