SCOTUS Approves State Tuition Aid For Students To Attend Religious Schools

People gather outside the Supreme Court building as the court hears oral arguments in the Espinoza v. Montana Dept. of Revenue case in Washington, U.S., January 22, 2020. REUTERS/Sarah Silbiger.

This opinion just came down, and I haven’t had an opportunity to read it, and probably won’t until tomorrow.  In Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, the justices held that the application of the Montana Constitution’s “no-aid” provision to a state program providing tuition assistance to parents who send their children to private schools discriminated against religious schools and the families whose children attend or hope to attend them, in violation of the free exercise clause.  This was a straight conservatives vs. liberals majority, and Chief Justice Roberts, much maligned of late, wrote the majority opinion. The Washington Post  reports,

Chief Justice John G. Roberts …said the Montana Supreme Court was wrong to strike down the program because of a provision in the state constitution that forbids public funds from going to religious institutions. The U.S. Constitution’s protection of religious freedom prevails, he said.

“A state need not subsidize private education,” Roberts wrote. “But once a state decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.

Again, I haven’t read the legal arguments, but the ethical justification for the opinion is clear. If public schools could be trusted not to indoctrinate students with political view and social positions that their parents might oppose, the urgency of the state providing affordable alternatives would be far less. However, alert and involved parents realize, or should, that by sending students to public schools, they are too often subjecting them to partisan and ideological brain-washing, and we are seeing the results in the streets as I write this. There need to be alternatives other than home-schooling. The ethics principles here are fairness, respect, and autonomy. Continue reading

Anatomy Of A Fake News Story: The Rainbow Cake And The Christian School

Wow, what a coincidence!!!

The headlines:

  • NBC News: Christian school expels teen after rainbow sweater and
    cake were deemed ‘lifestyle violations’
  • Fox News: Kentucky student expelled from private Christian school
    over rainbow shirt and cake, mom claims
  • Courier Journal: Louisville Christian school expelled student over a
    rainbow cake, family says
  • BuzzFeed News: This Mom Is Claiming A Christian School Expelled Her
    Teen Daughter Over A Picture With A Rainbow Cake
  • NY Post:Teen expelled from Christian school after rainbow shirt,
    cake photo
  • Chicago Tribune: Girl expelled from Christian school after posing with
    rainbow cake
  • New York Daily News: Freshman expelled from school for wearing rainbow shirt
  • The Washington Post: “Christian school expels teen after she posed with rainbow birthday cake, mother says.”

All of these headlines are misleading and deceitful, and intentionally so. This combines several varieties of Fake News, including “Outright false stories” deliberately published to mislead, “Fake headlines and clickbait,” and “Incompetent reporting.”

The facts of the episode only incidentally involve a rainbow cake, and the incident in question was the culmination of an ongoing contractual violation, not the extreme homophobia that that the various stories represented it to be. The frequent use of “mom says” and “family says” were cover for deliberately incompetent reporting. The family was, to be blunt, lying, and the truth of the episode was readily available to anyone with the diligence and integrity to look for it.

The Post story was typical of media confirmation bias at work, and indeed was the one many other sources began with. Reporter Michael Brice-Saddler wrote that  Kimberly Alford bought a custom a cake to celebrate the 15th birthday of her daughter, Kayla Kenney.  Alford told the credulous reporter that she instructed the bakery to decorate a cake with bright colors that ‘pop,’ and by purest accident, the resulting rainbow design matched her daughter’s sweater that she just happened to be wearing though she is not gay. Mom took a picture of Kayla smiling next to the birthday cake, not that there’s anything wrong with that.

If anyone believes the story about the amazing rainbow coincidence, I have a bridge to sell them. Yet the Post reporter did, just as Post reporters chose to believe that a Catholic school boy in a MAGA cap was harassing and smirking at a helpless old Native American.

The Post story continued, Continue reading

“The Keepers,” The Catholic Church, And Bishop Fulton J. Sheen

I began watching Netflix’s new “true crime” series “The Keepers” last night. I may not last through all seven episodes. In addition to the documentary story-telling methodology, which moves at the pace of a slug-race, the story of how unsolved murder of a Baltimore nun might  be part of  (yet another) horrific cover-up by the Catholic Church made me so angry and frustrated that I quit in the middle of the third episode. The series makes the case that the nun, Sister Catherine “Cathy” Cesnik, was killed because she was about  to reveal ongoing sexual abuse of young teenage girls by the priest running the Archbishop Keough High School for girls.

The abuse and the extent of it is not speculation. As in so many other places, the Catholic Church in Baltimore eventually paid millions in damages to multiple victims of multiple predator priests who the Church moved around the  region—so they could molest and assault new victims—rather than handing them over to law enforcement. It is hard to imagine any priest worse than Father Joseph Maskell, however, if even some of the allegations against him are true. Victims say he used student files and illicit police connections to target teenage girls who were already being sexually abused. He manipulated them using a sick combination of religion, guilt, hypnotism and intimidation, sexually abused them, and even delivered some over to members of the Baltimore police department for more abuse.

The documentary focuses on the school’s Class of ’69, though there must have been equally abused girls before and after. The conspiracy of silence began to crack in 1992, when an especially  victimized member of the class suddenly realized that she had repressed memories of horrible experiences, and finally complained to the Baltimore Archdiocese, setting off the kind of despicable Church defensive strategies too familiar to anyone who has seen “Spotlight.”

This documentary isn’t good for my state of mind. It makes me wonder not only if all is lost, but also if all wasn’t lost long ago. I was raised in a largely Catholic community. I am not religious, but as an ethicist I recognize the important, civilizing role religion has played in teaching and enforcing moral principles for the majority of the public for whom ethical analysis is too challenging. Episodes like the Father Maskell scandal raise questions that I rebuke myself for asking, like “How can this be?” “Jane Doe,” the star witness in the documentary, is still a devout Catholic. Her immediate response to every dilemma is to pray. I don’t get it. She was savaged, threatened and abused by a priest that she knows the Church allowed to prey on the vulnerable students entrusted to him. Why would she still trust the Catholic Church?

Why would anyone? Continue reading

From The “Saint’s Excuse” Files:The Catholic Church, Penn State, and Now Choate…What Have We Learned?

Protect the hive. Always protect the hive…

The renowned private boarding school school Choate Rosemary Hall, alma mater of such luminaries as John Dos Passos, Edward Albee, Glenn Close, multiple Kennedys and dozens more of the rich, famous and powerful, , just revealed that at least twelve former teachers had sexually molested, and in one case, raped, students without the crimes being reported to police. The pattern continued over decades. In some cases, teachers were allowed to resign after being confronted with evidence of abuse, and administrators wrote still letters of recommendations for them after they were fired. The predators then went to other schools, sometimes in positions of power and authority.

After the similar institutional conduct revealed by the Catholic Church and Penn State, does anyone believe that this is a rare occurrence in institution, including the most prestigious—and virtuous!—ones? The lesson is that established, powerful, iconic institutions are programmed to protect themselves above others, and regard their own missions and continued vitality more precious than any single individual, even a child.

Revisiting one of the most important of the Ethics Alarms’ 92 rationalizations:

13. The Saint’s Excuse: “It’s for a good cause”

This rationalization has probably caused more death and human suffering than any other. The words “it’s for a good cause” have been used to justify all sorts of lies, scams and mayhem. It is the downfall of the zealot, the true believer, and the passionate advocate that almost any action that supports “the Cause,’ whether it be liberty, religion, charity, or curing a plague, is seen as being justified by the inherent rightness of the ultimate goal. Thus Catholic Bishops protected child-molesting priests to protect the Church, and the American Red Cross used deceptive promotions to swell its blood supplies after the September 11, 2001 attacks. The Saint’s Excuse  allows charities to strong-arm contributors, and advocacy groups to use lies and innuendo to savage ideological opponents. The Saint’s Excuse is that the ends justify the means, because the “saint” has decided that the ends are worth any price—especially when that price will have to be paid by someone else.

Continue reading

No, It’s Actually Allison Benedikt Who’s A Bad Person

Hang in there--the schools will be better in a few generations...

Hang in there–the schools will be better in a few generations…

There may be some persuasive arguments to be made for sending your child to a public school system you don’t trust. The obvious one is that you have no choice, which is true for many Americans. There are also some good reasons to write a “manifesto” called “If You Send Your Kid to Private School, You Are a Bad Person,” the best of which is to cause people to focus on the problem of the failing and unacceptable public school system, and what should be done about it. However, Allison Benedikt, who actually wrote an article with this title and presumably this intent, failed so miserably at making a coherent and persuasive argument of any kind that her provocative title amounts to an unethical assertion itself: if you are going to make a blanket indictment of the character of millions of people, you had better be able to produce an ethical argument or two, or at least demonstrate that you comprehend a little bit about ethics. Allison doesn’t. Based on this piece, I not only wouldn’t trust her (oh, by the way, Allison, the core objective of ethical conduct in your profession—any profession, actually—is trust) to provide advice about how to educate my child, I wouldn’t trust her to walk my dog. Continue reading

Confections And Consequentialism



From across the pond comes a stupid story rich with buried ethics treasures.

Eleven-year-old Holli McCann was sent home from a week long school trip to the Isle of Wight (where Paul McCartney started vacationing  when he turned 64) because she violated one of the rules of the trip: no chocolate. The Bromet (in Watford, Herts) Primary School’s headmistress, Yvonne Graves, discovered the infraction by surreptitiously reading a private letter that Holly had written to her mother. After perusing the incriminating missive,Graves ordered teachers to search Holli’s room, which they did with the diligence and thoroughness of the FBI looking for forensic evidence of a serial killing, even emptying her toiletry bag into the sink and pulling out the lining of her suitcase. It was all worthwhile, however, because they discovered the yummy but incriminating substance they sought.

After the smoking chocolate was discovered, the headmistress contacted Holly’s mother and told her to pick up her daughter immediately—she had been voted off the Isle. The mother begged  Graves to reconsider, but was refused. She had to borrow money to make the 160-mile trip to pick up her daughter.

What have we learned? Continue reading

Yuri’s Tweets, Flawed Analogies and the School’s Defenders

[Why is it that when I’m traveling and stuck in airports where the supposedly free WiFi doesn’t work and on airplanes that can’t keep on schedule, some post that I assumed was fairly straightforward turns into the Battle of Antietam? I apologize to the various commenter’s whose work product languished waiting for moderation—I just didn’t have the chance. This odyssey ends tonight; I apologize for slowing things down. On the other hand, it’s good to know that my presence is not required for there to be lively and interesting discussions here…thanks, everyone. Good work.]

Don Bosco Prep High School, Class of 1917-1918

That is not to say that sending gross, obscene, or abusive tweets is exemplary conduct; obviously it is not. I have concluded, however, that the proper and ethical use of social media is something that people, including minors, have to learn for themselves by trial, error, research, observing the mistakes and experiences of others, making dumb mistakes and suffering because of them.  Parents and schools, as well as the popular media, have roles to play by giving advice and calling attention to cautionary tales, but heavy-handed attempts to manage social media conduct attempted by authority figures who, as a general rule, neither use nor understand what they are attempting to regulate are both irresponsible and doomed to failure. Like it or not, social media is a primary, and growing, means of communication and interaction in American society, and students are wise….that’s right, learn how to use it. I was just speaking to a room full of lawyers, and asked them how many used Twitter. The answer: none. But their clients use Twitter, and their client’s adversaries use it, and certainly their children. Their bar associations are making rules about what these lawyers and judges should and shouldn’t be able to do on social media, and most of those bar committee members don’t use Twitter either.As a result, the various jurisdictions have inconsistent rules, based on a lack of knowledge, that are already archaic.

It is fine and responsible for any adult to try to warn a young person that comments on social media need to be considered carefully, that they have a reach far beyond any intended audience and are essentially broadcasts, and that messages or photos can reach people who they hurt or upset, or cause to have a poor opinion of the sender. Ultimately, however, the pioneers in this new frontier of personal expression and mass communication are going to have to learn their own lessons, and better that they learn them now than when they are members of Congress. All punishing students for their tweets teaches them is that people with authority abuse it, and that adults just don’t understand. Because, for the most part, they don’t.

Now the analogies and comparisons:

Public schools vs. Private schools: I gather that the theory here is that if a student voluntarily attends a private school, the student has voluntarily submitted to whatever the school regards as proper discipline, whereas public schools, since they are mandatory and creatures of the government, are constrained by the Constitution. I think I may have encouraged this by a careless reference to the ACLU, which was, of course, a mistake (and I have removed it.) This is ethics, not Constitutional law, and the values are autonomy, fairness, respect, privacy and abuse of power and authority, not Freedom of Speech. I have dealt with several private schools and one Catholic school, and none of them suggested in their printed materials or regulations that they reserved the right to punish my child for what he said, wrote, or communicated during non-school hours, or when he wasn’t physically on school grounds. Neither does Don Bosco, which states as its “philosophy”:

“Don Bosco Prep educates young men so that, through a process of self discovery, each student will come to recognize and acknowledge his talents and limitations, while pursuing academic, athletic, artistic and personal excellence.

“Mindful of both our role and responsibility as a Salesian college prep school, we respect each student as a unique individual. Through active presence in his life, we promote a joyful spirit, intellectual curiosity, self-esteem and emotional maturity. We encourage the development of character and personal responsibility, love for one’s fellow human beings, a concern for the environment and an active commitment to social justice, all of which serve as the cornerstone of each student’s spiritual growth.”

I take none of that, including references to being “an active presence” in a student’s life, “promoting” emotional maturity, and “encouraging” development of character to mean “we can punish your child for absolutely anything he does or says that we disapprove of, no matter where or when it occurs.” It, the school, does all of the things relating to its philosophy in the school, based on the student’s activities and interactions in the school. Any other reading is giving a group of strangers whose biases, background and motivations I can only guess at a blank check to manipulate a child’s life, thoughts and personal activities.

When one teacher from a private school called me to tell me that she felt it was cruel of my son to exclude a classmate whom he did not like from his birthday party, I told her that it was none of her business, and filed a complaint with the school.. Private school does not mean “we can meddle in your child’s private–as opposed to school—activities.

Catholic vs. Secular: All schools should teach character; it happens that Catholic schools do it with more fervor, but that gives them neither a greater obligation nor additional authority. Schools teach good conduct and civility by insisting on appropriate conduct and deportment in school. Are people really prepared to argue that a Catholic school can justify punishing its students for not doing household chores, not washing their hands after using the bathroom in their homes, being cruel to a younger sibling or being disrespectful to a parent? Not only is personal social networking use as unrelated to the school  as any of these, it is also far less significant. How much of a blank check do we want school administrators to have? The right answer to that is that they shouldn’t have a blank check at all, and being a Catholic school changes nothing.

High schools vs. Military Academies: This is just a bad analogy. The student at a military academy has no personal life, and has no privacy. The academy is in loco parentis; the student lives there; authority is total. There is an honor code and a code of conduct, and it applies to everything a student does, including communications. That’s the military. That’s not high school.

High Schools vs. College: Several commenters have referenced the incident from last March when Brigham Young University suspended a star basketball player for having pre-marital sex. Brigham Young is famous for its strict and far-reaching conduct code, which bans drinking, pre-marital sex and many other activities that are virtually courses at other schools. If a student agrees to attend B.Y.U., the student has also agreed to certain conditions unique to the university. Should a more typical college be applauded for suspending a student who has sex with his high school girl friend over Christmas break, in his parents’ home? No; this is none of a college’s business, and attempting to extend its authority beyond the campus and even over state lines in such a fashion is intolerable. If Yuri Wright and his parents signed a document promising that Yuri would never send an offensive tweet during his years at the school, I withdraw my condemnation of Don Bosco’s punishment.

High schools vs. the Workplace: It is true that if an employee engages in conduct outside of work that embarrasses or reflects badly on an employer, ot that interferes with the employee’s ability to do his or her job, the employer is behaving ethically if it chooses to terminate the employee. It is not ethical for an employer to terminate an employee for any private conduct it happens to disapprove of, however. It can’t tell me that I can’t drink or smoke or have sex with men in my own home. It  better not tell me that I can’t vote for Ron Paul or root for the Red Sox, either. The Naked Teacher Principle applies, of course: if I’m a Coca-Cola VP and a Facebook picture shows me chugging Pepsi, that image could undermine my effectiveness at work, and Coke can can me; it’s ethical. If I write an ethics columns for a newspaper and I am caught in an adulterous affair with Marianne Gingrich, the newspaper is only being responsible to fire its unethical, untrustworthy ethicist. None of this applies to Yuri’s tweets. They don’t reflect on the school, or shouldn’t, because the school shouldn’t have any control over his personal communications. They  don’t interfere with his studies, or make him a worse football player.

Expression vs. Conduct: Tweets aren’t conduct. Even if I accept the proposition that a school may, in extreme situations, have some legitimate role in attempting to control student conduct outside of school (and I’m not sure I do), allowing a school to punish a student for the content of his words, uttered or written away from school, is a slippery slope with no braking. If sexually and racially objectionable tweets can get a student expelled, why not tweets critical of President Obama, or cheering on Newt Gingrich? Does Don Bosco’s commitment to “social justice” mean that Yuri can’t tweet that Occupy Wall Street is a crock?