Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Third in a series about alternatives to public schools

On this day in 1982, 450 fundamentalist preachers flocked to Louisville, Neb., barricading themselves inside Faith Christian Church in protest of the fact that the church’s pastor, the Rev. Everett Sileven, had been jailed for running an unauthorized Christian school.

I didn’t have any kids then and was working for the local daily in Omaha. I think like a lot of people, I was kind of sneering at them. Won’t use state-certified teachers? Won’t submit to accreditation standards for educational quality control? To jail with them, then. Take ‘em in the wacky wagon.

Boy, is my face red today.

The fight between Rev. Sileven and the State Education Department, prompted by the Nebraska State Education Association, dragged on from the time the Christian school opened in August 1977 ‘til a 1984 state law supposedly formed an acceptable compromise.

And all that time, probably like most Nebraskans, I didn’t understand what was at stake. I thought it was a stuck-up, big-haired, extremist preacher trying to throw his weight around against the professional education establishment that my tax dollars supported.

So as the State padlocked that church, and talked of using tear gas to drive out the 100 supporters inside, and repeatedly jailed Sileven and, finally, seven fathers on Thanksgiving Eve, and held them in jail for 44 days plus for refusing to answer questions . . . during all of that, I still thought the State was right.

I can’t BELIEVE I did. We nearly had a Waco on our hands, or a Ruby Ridge.

Now I see that it was a clear violation of those church members’ First Amendment rights, to say that their church school had to be government-regulated beyond basic fire and safety issues.

Now that I have children who’ve gone through public schools, and realize that the quality in them is not always so hot, that teacher certification is a joke (don’t believe me? ask any teacher), and that it was really unconstitutional for the State to be demanding compulsory attendance records and teacher ‘’competency’’ testing from that little church school, I owe Sileven and his supporters a big apology.

Oh, well, though: we’re all lifelong learners, aren’t we?

Anyway, I think it was the following winter, when I had quit my job to stay at home with our firstborn, but was free-lancing, that USA Today called to assign me to go down to Louisville to cover a development in that story. I think one dad had cracked and was to be released from jail.

Well, with my head packed full of pro-government propaganda, ready to go down there and expose those church-school proponents as the cuckoos I just KNEW they were, I arranged child-care for my baby, and hopped into my car.

And then I proceeded to get high-centered on a pile of snow in the driveway . . . and never did get down there to cover the story. (Great Moments in Dignity. So much for the product of a public school, eh?)

Remember how harsh that winter was? About as cold and stinging as most Nebraskans’ view of unaccredited, unapproved church schools, I’d say. It’s a good thing I never made it down there, after all. I never have liked how USA Today glosses over complicated stories, and that would have been what I would have had to do, in 500 words or whatever they’d give me.

Plus I wouldn’t be happy, now, if I’d been among the pack of wolves who snarled and snapped at our fellow Americans who just wanted to run their church school and be left in peace . . . but the government couldn’t stand to yield them their freedom.

Because that’s what that story was really about: freedom of religion, and its essential twin, freedom of education. You can’t have one without the other. I think the bottom line about Louisville is that the State wants to control all education, including the private schools and homeschools. The more success that is found outside the State’s control, the less money and power will flow through the State. To them, that’s scary. To us, it should be exciting. And increasingly, I think people are waking up to that fact, that freedom in education is the way to go.

I’m sad that Nebraska’s name was smeared by being the scene of such an assault on religious liberty. But I’m happy that, as far as I can tell, the vast majority of Nebraskans now believe that church schools should have to right to teach kids their way, in peace, above and beyond State control except for simple safety issues. And why? Because church schools are performing a ministry that outranks government, without receiving a cent of tax dollars, and by all accounts, like homeschoolers, church schools are doing a better job of educating kids than the public schools, which have voluminous regulations and heavy tax support, anyway.

Read more about Sileven and how all this fits together in a long article by respected education activist Samuel Blumenfeld:


And next time you’re thinking of Nebraska heroes and Hall of Famers, think of the Rev. Everett Sileven. Sorry I didn’t ‘’get it’’ back then, Pastor. Hope to make it up to you, and meet you someday, in that totally unregulated, unaccredited place . . . where The Roll is Called Up Yonder.

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