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Christian Nationalists Accelerate Their Plan to Dismantle Public Education

State legislatures are passing bills to erode church-state separation in public education programs throughout the US.

When Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz attended the 2023 Turning Point USA convention, he gave the Christian nationalists in attendance a preview of the National Prayer in School Act, a bill he introduced into the House of Representatives shortly after the convention. His speech electrified the crowd: “The beautiful new Supreme Court that President Trump gave us just might uphold a constitutional law based on the values that the country was built on,” he began.

Gaetz later became more explicit, posting a speech on Instagram in support of the legislation: “Our country’s educational policy forbids students and faculty from praying while endlessly promoting degenerate LGBT and anti-white propaganda,” he said. “My legislation unlocks religious freedom.” As written, the Act would erode church-state separation, giving students, faculty and staff the right to pray on school grounds — something that has been barred for more than 50 years.

The bill is currently in the House Judiciary Committee. While its chances of passage are considered slim by policy watchers on both sides of the aisle — multiple sources told Truthout that they doubt that it will get out of Committee — state legislatures throughout the country are eroding the separation of church and state, zeroing in on public education and restoring “voluntary” school prayer; permitting (and in some places, requiring) the posting of “In God We Trust” in classrooms; allowing unlicensed chaplains to counsel K-12 students; authorizing release time so that students can attend religious instruction during class time; and providing vouchers of up to $16,000 per student per year to subsidize tuition at private, religious academies.

Meanwhile, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, an attempt by the Catholic Archdiocese to acquire state funding to open the nation’s first government-financed religious charter program was recently rebuffed by the state’s highest court. St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School was set to open in the fall of 2024; according to the school’s promotional materials it intended to teach a curriculum “steeped in the richness of Catholic intellectual tradition.”

Oklahoma education authorities had approved St. Isidore’s bid to start the school last summer, but opponents appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court where judges were asked to consider whether sanctioning the use of tax dollars to open a wholly online and explicitly religious K-12 program violated the First Amendment.

Many were outraged by the plan. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools joined the ACLU and a slew of human rights groups and public school supporters to challenge the proposed program’s overreach into secular society.

For the moment, they’ve won.

“The right’s attempts to get religion into public schools have increased and we are seeing more and more intrusions,” Allison Gill, vice president of legal and policy at American Atheists, Inc., told Truthout. “Public education is one of America’s most important cultural achievements and public schools are a cultural landmark. Our democracy depends on robust public programs.”

According to Gill, the many attacks on public schooling are meant to dismantle public education, a longstanding goal of conservative individuals like former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos whose American Federation for Children has funneled millions of dollars to candidates and incumbents who support an anti-public education agenda. Groups, including the Alliance Defending Freedom, First Liberty Institute, Heritage Foundation and Moms for Liberty have also jumped onto this bandwagon.

Their efforts, Gill explained, have received a boost from federal Supreme Court decisions, state-level legislation, and state courts that are friendly to Christian nationalists. As a result, attacks on public education and the separation of church and state are accelerating rapidly.

Erosion Has Accelerated Since 2005

According to Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU’s program on freedom and belief, the once-significant wall between church and state has been weakening for decades, but the process accelerated when John Roberts became chief justice of the Supreme Court in 2005. “Donald Trump is fully on board with the assault on church-state separation, but the winnowing away of barriers and protections preceded him,” Mach told Truthout. And since Trump was elected, conservative activism to bring religious doctrine into public school classrooms has seen a rapid series of successes in the courts.

Policy researcher Bryan Patrick Kelley has written extensively about religion and public education and credits several Supreme Court decisions for blurring the lines. Among them: 2000’s Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, which sanctioned student-led voluntary prayer on school grounds; 2017’s Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, which found that it was discriminatory for the government to refuse to provide supplies to a parochial preschool simply because a faith group ran it; 2020’s Espinoza v. Montana which, along with 2022’s Carson v. Makin, allows students to use publicly funded vouchers to attend private religious schools; and 2022’s Kennedy v. Bremerton, which affirmed a high school football coach’s right to pray at the 50-yard line, with students present, after every game.

Additional court decisions permit students to distribute religious literature to classmates during lunch as well as before and after school, and to lead Bible study groups on school grounds as long as no one is coerced to attend them.

These decisions have resulted in the U.S. becoming a state-by-state patchwork, with differences appearing both between and within states, and leading many educators to be concerned about what is and is not allowed. Their questions prompted the Department of Education to issue clarifying guidelines in 2023 following the Kennedy decision. Among other things, the guidelines state that public schools cannot provide “religious instruction meant to indoctrinate students into specific belief systems,” but can teach classes that cover religion “as a subject of inquiry” and can discuss the ways different religions have influenced art, literature, music and history.

But numerous right-wing groups, both religious and not, are pushing back against this fault line.

“Oklahoma is the vanguard of the religious public school movement,” Mach explains. “The gist of the lawsuit for those who challenged the Archdiocese is that charter schools are public, not private. The goal of the lawsuit was to prevent the state of Oklahoma from carrying out the contract with the Archdiocese and stop public money from being spent on religious education programs. We [at the ACLU] see the idea of a religious public school as oxymoronic.”

For the time being, this argument has prevailed, but an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court is likely.

In addition to the ACLU litigation, Mach reports that a separate lawsuit was filed by Oklahoma’s Republican Attorney General Gentner Drummond to stop St. Isidore’s from opening. “Drummond was able to go directly to the state Supreme Court to oppose tax money being used for St. Isidore’s,” Mach said. “The ACLU believes that if St. Isidore’s was a private school, it would have been able to impose its own rules on students and staff, but public schools can’t and must obey anti-discrimination laws covering hiring and admissions.”

In arguing against the Archdiocese, Drummond told the local press, “The framers of the U.S. Constitution and those who drafted Oklahoma’s Constitution clearly understood how best to protect religious freedom: by preventing the State from sponsoring any religion at all.”

The State-Level Assault on Public Education

Nik Nartowicz, state policy counsel at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, reports that 15 separate bills (in 15 different states) to allow chaplains to counsel public school students — often at no charge to cash-strapped schools — have been introduced this year. Although so far only Florida and Louisiana have given chaplains the green light in 2024, adding these two states means that more than a dozen now allow chaplains (most of whom do not have counseling credentials) to interact with kids on school grounds. Texas was the first to sanction this in 2023.

That said, the plan did not roll out as seamlessly as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott intended.

“In Texas, 25 of the most populous districts, with a combined student body of more than 1.8 million students, rejected the idea of chaplains coming in,” Nartowicz told Truthout.

Nartowicz added that the bill’s opponents include many religious leaders who made it clear that “they saw untrained chaplains in schools as a bad idea.”

Dissenting clergy have emphasized that anyone who can pass a background check can call themself a chaplain, which allows them to go into the state’s public schools. Courses in counseling methods and child development are not required.

Then there’s the issue of release time. In early June, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signed House Bill 1425, allowing parents to pull their kids out of school for “religious or moral instruction” for up to three weekly class periods. Similarly, Tennessee lawmakers recently passed a bill to allow students to miss up to one hour of classroom work a day specifically for religious classes or religious activities.

Meg Kilgannon, senior fellow for education studies at the right-wing Family Research Council, posits the rationale for this: “Religious release programs may bring whole families back to the church and into a relationship with Jesus Christ,” she told The Washington Stand magazine.

Other efforts to bring Jesus into public education are less obvious.

Since 2023, 18 states have passed legislation to allow (and in some places, require) the words, “In God We Trust,” to be affixed to classroom walls. In late June, Louisiana went one step further, becoming the first state to require the posting of the Ten Commandments in every schoolroom. A challenge from Americans United for Separation of Church and State, The Freedom from Religion Foundation, the ACLU, and other proponents of church-state separation has been filed. At press time, six other states are considering copycat measures.

Taking Funds Away From Public Schools

Vouchers pose yet another affront to education by shifting funding from public to private entities.

“The current Supreme Court rulings seem to indicate that they want to make it easier for states to create voucher programs that mainly benefit religious private schools,” Steven Emmert, executive director of the Secular Coalition for America told Truthout. “Vouchers are a gift to people who want to send their kids to private schools and do not need public money to do so. This takes funding from public education and gifts it to people who already have money.”

According to The Washington Post, subsidy amounts vary by state (and usually range between $10,000 and $16,000 per student per year); during the 2023-24 academic year, 4.7 million kids (out of a total U.S. student population of 49.6 million) in 29 states and Washington, D.C., received financing to attend private schools, most of them religious. Many of these students have never attended public schools.

“Vouchers started in Milwaukee in 1990. Proponents argued that the funding was needed to give low-income kids and kids with individualized educational programs additional opportunities for equitable schooling,” Emmert said. “This has now expanded to a universal entitlement” in many states, which means families at any income level can receive these vouchers if they don’t want to send their children to public schools.

Allison Gill at American Atheists calls the shift to universal eligibility a direct dismantling of public education. “The Supreme Court ruled that states with voucher programs have to give them to people who want their kids to go to religious schools,” she said. “If this is extended to all 50 states, it will weaken public education considerably.”

This is not accidental, she adds, but while the process of divestment has been unfolding for decades, the movement began to pick up speed in 2016 when Christian nationalists formed Project Blitz — helmed by the conservative organizations WallBuilders, the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, and the National Legal Foundation. Project Blitz’s purpose — never hidden — was to inject religion into public life, attack LGBTQIA equality, undermine public education, decimate reproductive choice, and oppose racial progress, all while couching their agenda in the language of parental rights and religious liberty.

In the eight years since Project Blitz was founded, Christian nationalists have done extensive organizing, laying out a game plan for not only ensuring Trump’s presidential victory come November but for making inroads (and eventually controlling) every aspect of our social and political lives: arts/entertainment, business, education, family, government, media and religion. (Some Christian nationalists, including the New Apostolic Reformation, call this vision for a religious state the Seven Mountains Mandate.)

“Right now, it looks like the right is throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks,” Nartowicz said. “We’re seeing school prayer bills, release time legislation, ‘In God We Trust’ signs and Ten Commandments postings, expanded universal voucher programs, chaplains in schools, and an attempt to use public funds for religious education. We know that this broad attack is meant to undermine public education and promote Christian nationalism. But we also know that religious activist forces comprise a small minority of the U.S. population.”

Meanwhile, he says, Americans United for Separation of Church and State along with other groups are continuing to sound a loud alarm about right-wing incursions into political life, opposing bills to undercut public school funding, and building alliances and educating the public about the insidious threats the right poses to secular democracy.

“Our members are people of all faiths and people of no faith,” he said, “We’re here and we plan to continue doing the work of keeping church and state separate.”

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