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The Dark Ages

The Dark Ages


Several recent situations suggest just how far and fast conservatives would have us regress, particularly in respect to women’s rights. Perhaps less destructive than the Dobbs decision, these developments nevertheless reveal a pattern of deeply ingrained cultural misogyny. In both cases, an additional dynamic is the infrequently discussed fact that directly and indirectly we are subsidizing sexism and discrimination through public policy.

A North Carolina lawsuit, Peltier v. Charter Day School, is wending its way to the Supreme Court. This case arose when girls and their parents sued the school over a requirement that girls and young women wear skirts. The plaintiffs claimed that the uniform policy violated the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution and Title IX. Among the absurd rationales for the policy were the school’s assertions that that every girl is a “fragile vessel” and that wearing skirts “promotes chivalry.”

According to the ACLU:

The girls sought a change to the uniform policy because being required to wear skirts—and prohibited from wearing pants or shorts—restricted their movement, and the change would allow them to be more active during recess, avoid exposing their underwear when they crawled during tornado and fire drills, and keep them warmer in the winter. They also explained that the skirts requirement “sends the message that girls should be less active than boys and that they are more delicate than boys,” with the result that boys “feel empowered” and “in a position of power over girls.” In the words of another girl, the skirts requirement conveys the school’s view that girls “simply weren’t worth as much as boys,” and that “girls are not in fact equal to boys.”

The school argues that the girls “have no constitutional right” to Equal Protection despite its status as a public charter school. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled for the girls, deciding that as a public school, Charter Day School must honor the constitutional rights of students and that the dress code violated Title IX.

The other development is the aggressive move by the Southern Baptist Convention to ban women from all leadership positions in member churches, affecting some 2,000 women who are currently Pastors or other church leaders. Churches which don’t comply are to be expelled from the organization, prompting me to reflect on Groucho Marx’s pithy observation, “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member . . .”

But to the women affected, it’s no laughing matter. As the Charter Day School student noted, “girls (women) simply weren’t worth as much as boys,” and “girls (women) are not in fact equal to boys (men).”

Among the important rights encoded in our Constitution are the rights to be offensive, bigoted and hateful. But these rights are circumscribed by legislation prohibiting discrimination in public accommodation, hiring and other elements of civic life. For too many years this discrimination has been tolerated when it should be sanctioned.

This happens in two significant ways, represented by these cases.

In Peltier v. Charter Day School the discrimination against girls is supposed to be “tolerated” because the school claims exemption from federal law by way of an increasingly common dodge. Charter schools all over the country declare a quasi-private status that allows them to operate with relative impunity. That they are funded by tax dollars becomes the critical variable.

Charter schools and voucher programs are not only designed to gradually erode the public system; they are designed to allow evasion of discrimination in any number of ways. This case, should the Supreme Court take it up, could further open the floodgates of public support for institutions that deny children the constitutional rights to which they are entitled. Given the composition and predilections of the current Court, I worry that the Fourth Circuit ruling will be overturned.

The case of the Southern Baptist Convention presents an overlapping problem that has plagued our republic for generations. Both the Charter Day School, others of its ilk, and all churches, enjoy the benefits of tax exempt status. Tax exemption is effectively a public subsidy of such institutions. You and I are supporting institutions that force girls to wear skirts and don’t allow women to assume leadership roles.

In addition, the religious exemption from federal discrimination laws permits all manner of explicit and harmful bias against the LGBTQ+ community with no opportunity for redress. That I, or you, find this bigotry offensive, is unfortunately beside the point. Even the KKK has constitutional protection of its noxious, hateful expression and activities. But we don’t have to indirectly subsidize the KKK with our tax dollars.

There have been sporadic efforts to change the tax exempt laws, usually to recoup revenue lost through exemption from property taxes – especially the fabulously wealthy Catholic Church. These efforts have all failed. The free pass for overt discrimination should also be revoked. It’s high time that all American institutions that benefit directly or indirectly from public support are held to a basic standard of human decency. There are several organizations trying valiantly to fight for this decency. The ACLU and the Freedom From Religion Foundation are good places to start if you’d like to join the fight.

We shouldn’t have to subsidize schools that think girls are “fragile vessels” or churches that choose to return to the Dark Ages.


Steve Nelson
Steve Nelson is a retired educator, author, and newspaper columnist. He and his wife Wendy moved to Erie from Manhattan in 2017 to be near family. He was a serious violinist and athlete until a catastrophic mountain bike accident in 2020. He now specializes in gratitude and kindness.

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