The Assault on Parental Moral Authority

Two of America’s three branches of federal government have declared war on parental authority. President Obama’s Department of Education has been explicitly attacking schools that have the audacity to prefer traditional morality. However, making sense of the Education Department’s actions requires looking at the Obergefell same-sex “marriage” decision. The Obergefell decision explains why the Department of Education will not stop until it has eliminated parental authority to teach traditional morality to their children.

The Department of Education has recently targeted an Illinois public school. The school allowed a (biologically male) transgendered student to participate in girls’ sports. The student was also allowed to change and shower in the girls’ locker room. However, the student was required to shower separately and use a privacy curtain when changing clothes. The Obama administration has declared that this discriminates against transgendered students and if anyone must use a privacy curtain, it must be the girls who only wish to change clothes in front of other biological females.

Viewed in isolation, the Obama administration’s actions appear intended solely for public schools, leaving Christian and home schools safe. In fact, these actions should be viewed in conjunction with the recent Obergefell decision that mandated same-sex “marriage.” The Obergefell decision makes clear that American families are facing the loss of their parental right to morally educate their children.

America’s constitution assumes republican self-rule. The Supreme Court is to exercise judgment. It is not to exercise political will in establishing new rights. If there are to be new rights, these new rights are to come from the people through legislation or constitutional amendment.

Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority (5-4) opinion in the Obergefell case explicitly dismissed these constitutional limitations on the Supreme Court. As Kennedy put it, “When new insight reveals discord between the Constitution’s central protections and a received legal stricture, a claim to liberty must be addressed.” In other words, when five members of the Supreme Court want something badly enough, the Court can dispense with republican self-government.

The obvious question, which Kennedy refuses to answer, relates to familial authority. If the American people are not politically capable of self-government on issues of sexuality, are American families capable of self-government when dealing with their children? However, Kennedy goes further than simply undermining the possibility of self-rule. He also redefines liberty in an explicitly postmodern fashion.

Kennedy approvingly states that marriage is among life’s momentous acts of self-definition. This explains why he describes those who hold to traditional marriage as demeaning homosexuals, imposing stigma and injury, and disrespecting and subordinating them. The Supreme Court is now responsible for ensuring that individual self-creation has no biological, cultural, religious, or political limitations. This requires eliminating any vestiges of moral censure that might emotionally burden one’s self-creation. In other words, the Supreme Court is now in the moral education business.

America has traditionally connected rights and responsibilities. For example, the right of sexuality implies the responsibility of nurturing the children that come from that sexual activity. This responsibility explicitly extended to moral education. This is why America’s public schools typically reflected the moral sentiments of the local community, and most of America’s moral education occurred in the family, churches, and synagogues.

Kennedy has explicitly undermined this perspective. No longer are families or local communities to be trusted with teaching moral education. As he actually writes, the Supreme Court has read 100 legal briefs and can now determine the moral issues for the nation. Local communities have connected sexual rights with sexual responsibilities in a manner that makes homosexuals feel demeaned. Since local communities have failed to define liberty in a postmodern fashion, local communities must lose their republican right of self-government.

The Obergefell decision shows why Christian families cannot ignore President Obama’s attack on public schools. Religious families may believe that home schools and Christian schools will provide long-term refuge from this moral reeducation program. This is a mistake, for Obergefell shows that this moral reeducation program will inevitably be rolled out against private schools and families.

Put another way, Kennedy’s opinion forces us to ask this question: on what basis do parents now exercise authority over their children? Kennedy defines liberty in terms of will rather than in terms of reason. One’s willful self-creation must not be limited by nature or culture. With this understanding of liberty, how can parents exercise rightful authority over their children in contravention of their children’s willful desires?

To be more specific, how will Kennedy respond when parents establish familial rules based on traditional morality? What happens when the parental desire to teach children self-mastery and long-term (reasonable) decision-making contradicts the children’s desire to imaginatively create their own identity? What happens when a parent refuses a teenager’s request for gender reassignment surgery or greater freedom for sexual experimentation? How does Kennedy not define this as a parental abuse of authority that prohibits the child’s desire for self-definition?

As progressives have consolidated control of America’s public schools, they increasingly expect moral education to occur in the schools rather than in homes and churches. This, at least partially, explains Kennedy’s use of stigmatizing language. Kennedy intends his opinion to be an educational opinion that explains to Americans what is no longer appropriate for moral debate.

Kennedy has historically been a proponent of strong free speech protections, but his Obergefell decision explicitly discourages public discussion of traditional sexual morality. America’s public schools have taken the hint. As First Things editor R.R. Reno has recently noted, “Parents today receive helpful memos from the local school board informing them that any behavior or statement suggesting less than full affirmation of homosexuality will not be tolerated.”

As public schools more aggressively promote progressive moral standards, parents will inevitably find themselves under attack. What happens when parental ethical standards conflict with the ethical standards promoted by the Department of Education? This is no longer a purely theoretical question.

Christian families are increasingly relying on parochial and home schools to protect their right to oversee the moral formation of their children. Unfortunately, this is only a short-term solution. Recently, accreditation agencies (sponsored by President Obama’s Department of Education) threatened to remove Gordon College’s accreditation unless Gordon agreed to hire those whose sexual morality contradicts traditional Christian morality. Gordon College successfully fought back, but that was just a preliminary shot across the bow.

Accreditation and tax agencies are setting their sights on supposedly recalcitrant schools. The Supreme Court is now the post-modern moral educator for the country and Christian schools are already targeted. Christian families will be next.

Caleb Henry


Caleb Henry teaches political science at a university in the Pacific Northwest. He earned his Ph.D. in politics from Claremont Graduate University in 2002.

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