Jewish World Review April 16, 2003 / 14 Nisan, 5763

Terry Eastland

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Is it acceptable for an education secretary to state a personal preference for religious schooling? | Education Secretary Rod Paige gave an interview to the Baptist Press early in the year. The publication, the news service of the Southern Baptist Convention, isn't widely read in the nation's capital. But the story, featuring Dr. Paige's comments on Christian schools and Christian values, drew big notice in Washington last week. And condemnation. Dr. Paige has clarified but declined to apologize for his remarks. And he has rejected demands that he resign. Did he cross a line or not?

There has been some confusion over what exactly Dr. Paige, who is a Baptist, said to the Baptist Press. It quoted him as follows: "All things equal, I would prefer to have a child in a school that has a strong appreciation for the values of the Christian community, where a child is taught to have a strong faith." It would seem that Dr. Paige was discussing elementary and secondary education. And that is how his critics understand him.

But a transcript of the interview produced by the Education Department shows that Dr. Paige was asked a question about higher education. And Dr. Paige explained at a press conference that he had been asked about "my personal views" and thus had intended to convey merely that he would want to have a child in a college that emphasizes strong Christian values.

Todd Starnes of the Baptist Press agreed that the secretary was answering a question about higher education and said he should have made that clear in the story. Yet whether Dr. Paige was addressing higher or lower education isn't the issue here. Rather, it is whether it is acceptable for an education secretary to state a personal preference for nonpublic schooling.

That Dr. Paige stated a preference for Christian schools sharpens the question by introducing the vexed subject of church and state. In the interview, Dr. Paige said those schools have a "strong value system" that public schools may lack. At his press conference, he offered a clarification. "There are some great public schools [that] have strong value systems," he said. "There are some great private schools that have strong value systems, and the reverse is true. ... I'd have to look at the specific school."

That hasn't mollified the secretary's critics, some of whom contend he really wants public school teachers to introduce Christianity to their classrooms in ways that cross constitutional lines. The claim is hard to accept. Nothing in Dr. Paige's tenure as Houston's school superintendent supports it. And he issued his department's "guidance" on religion and public schools earlier this year, a central point of which is that they may not endorse religion.

Yet Dr. Paige stands accused by Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, of having "denigrated" the many American families "whose faiths and educational choices" are different from his. He should recant or else resign, Mr. Nadler says. If that judgment is right, it is hard to see how Dr. Paige, or any education secretary, ever could state a personal preference for a religious school. "Thou shalt not state such a preference," would seem to be the rule.

Is that a fair rule? Only if you think an education secretary never is to offer in public a personal preference for an education in a religious context. But that takes a too narrow view of public service, and it suggests that we Americans are so dunderheaded we can't understand a personal view uttered by an officeholder for what it is.

Certainly it matters how an education secretary - or anyone else in government - discusses matters related to faith. Yet Dr. Paige was more careful in the Baptist Press interview than the publication made him out to be in its story - indeed, conceding "factual and contextual errors," it now regrets "the misrepresentations." Our education secretary really isn't the threat his church-state critics think. Of more concern ought to be those who make false charges.

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JWR contributor Terry Eastland is is publisher of The Weekly Standard.Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Terry Eastland