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Religious schools need protecting, especially in the developing world

Written by William C. Duncan

October 14, 2022

In his remarks at the July 2022 Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit in Rome, law school dean G. Marcus Cole offered some important international context to the Summit’s discussion. Much of the discussion of religious freedom appropriately addresses the positive development of protective decisions by the United States Supreme Court.

Dean Cole noted, however, that: “We also cannot lose sight of what is happening in the rest of the world. Darkness is reaching out in an attempt to envelop the Earth, and crush religious freedom in places where it is most needed.”

Some of the threats to religious freedom are stark:

…there are still thirteen countries in the world where being an atheist is a crime punishable by death. That penalty – death – also still awaits those convicted of blasphemy laws. Persecution of Catholics and Christians around the world persists. Churches are burned, and believers are beheaded.

And we must never turn a blind eye to the genocide taking place in Western China, where over one million Uyghurs have been placed into concentration camps, for no other crime than the fact that they worship Allah rather than Xi Jinping.

Less well known is another threat Dean Cole highlighted:

Across the global south, in Africa and Latin America, there is a movement afoot called the Abidjan Principles, which has the purported purpose of forcing religious schools in developing communities to conform to public educational standards. The practical effect, however, is to eliminate religion in schools, including religious educators. This is particularly pernicious since the overwhelming majority of quality schools in the developing world are provided by religious schools and educators.

The Abidjan Principles is a document created after a series of international meetings sponsored by advocacy organizations. The Principles compile statements in international agreements and documents about the right of children to education. More importantly, the document suggests a way of resolving an asserted “tension between State obligations to ensure the provision of free quality education to all without discrimination, and the liberty to choose and establish a private school.”

While expressing support for the principle that “States must respect the liberty of parents or legal guardians to choose for their children an educational institution other than a public educational institution, and the liberty of individuals and bodies to establish and direct private educational institutions” the document includes a major caveat: “subject always to the requirement that such private educational institutions conform to standards established by the State in accordance with its obligations under international human rights law.”

The document calls for more stringent regulation of private education: “States are however required strictly to regulate private involvement in education by making sure that the right to education is not undermined.” Some of the implications of this demand are uncontroversial, such as that private schools should not “increase inequality or injustice” and that students should be the beneficiaries of educational programs. These kinds of demands, though, are often vague and appear to allow states to make demands of private schools by directing states to “ensure that private education conforms to educational standards” and to ensure that the existence of private “does not jeopardise the State’s role as educational guarantor.”

These provisions would allow national governments to micromanage what private schools, including religious schools, are allowed to teach. As Dean Cole noted, such a provision can easily become an excuse to prevent specifically religious instruction that previously coexisted with other instruction. There is no policy justification for doing so. Research indicates that “students attending religious schools generally achieve at higher levels academically than students attending nonreligious schools.”

The experience of elementary, secondary and higher education in the United States and other nations shows that high quality education can be and is provided by religious schools. A respect for diversity among schools can enhance rather than detract from the goal of ensuring high quality and accessible education for more students.

Special thanks to Brinley Koenig who served as an intern for the Sutherland Institute during the summer of 2022 for the research supporting this post.

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