Segregated Education’s Role in Today’s “Religious Liberty” Arguments

Today, a special back-to-school post reminding you that white supremacy and racial segregation in education gave us much of today’s Religious Right:

Since Brown v. the Board of Education (1955), religious conservatives have used private religious education as a defense against segregation.  Post-Brown, white families facing the specter of integration set up private Christian schools all across the US that excluded students of color. “Religious liberty” became a cover for racial bigotry–just as, today, is a cover for anti-gay bigotry.

This went on for more than a generation, as white people integrated with “all deliberate speed”–which is to say, not much speed at all. White mothers, claiming that they were only acting in their own children’s best interests, were central players in resisting segregation.

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“Race Mixing is Communism” announces the picket sign of a white woman opposing desegregation. Political conservatives have often tried to paint those in favor of racial justice and equality as un-American. Not surprisingly, Ronald Reagan, who tried to label Nelson Mandela as a communist, supported “segregation academies” like Bob Jones. 

It wasn’t until 1983–almost thirty years after Brown–that the ultra-conservative Bob Jones University lost a Supreme Court case over the issue. Because it opposed interracial marriage on religious grounds, the school refused to allow African Americans to enroll until 1971. (In 1970s, 15 years after Brown, the IRS revised rules to say that segregated nonprofits were no longer tax exempt.) Then, until 1975, it only allowed in married African American students (presumably, only those married to other African Americans). When it began to allow unmarried African Americans to enroll, it prohibited entrance to anyone who promoted interracial marriage. The university had a policy against interracial dating that it didn’t repeal until 2000.

These policies caused it a major headache in the 1970s and early ’80s. The federal government came after the school’s tax exempt status, arguing that the government had a compelling interest in eradicating racism in education. For 13 years, the school fought against the revocation of its tax exempt status, but in 1983, Bob Jones v. United States was decided in favor of the federal government. In 2000, when presidential candidate George W. Bush came under criticism for visiting a school that continued to ban interracial dating (and is anti-Catholic and homophobic, though most of his voters didn’t mind the homophobia), the school changed its policy. Just two years ago, it regained its nonprofit status.

Bob Jones lost its court case, but the arguments it made there–that any government intervention in its operations was a violation of its religious liberty–continue to appear in “religious liberty” arguments today. This includes those opposing contraception mandates in health insurance, supporting the right to fire LGBTQ+ people based on their sexuality or gender, and attacks on Muslims.

At its core, Bob Jones wasn’t about religious liberty but about the right to create a white-only schools–and, in a broader sense, about defining “religious liberty” in a way that gave authority to white Christians to discriminate.


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