Washington (CNSNews.com) – On the 46th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s March on Washington, Education Secretary Arne Duncan declined to say whether King’s view that just laws are based on God's law should be taught in public schools.
In his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King expressed his classical belief, based on the teachings of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas as well as the Founding Fathers, that a just law is a law that comports with the law of God and an unjust law is a law that does not comport with the law of God.
“How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust?” King asked in the letter, which he wrote in the Birmingham jail after being arrested for marching without a permit.
“A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law,” the civil rights leader said.
Citing St. Thomas Aquinas, King wrote, “An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”
At a press conference Tuesday publicizing the Kids for King education initiative, which aims to get children to learn about King’s teachings, CNSNews.com asked Duncan whether he thought the content of King’s letter should be taught in public schools.
Duncan did not directly answer, saying only, “I think there is so much to learn from Dr. King.”
Without speaking specifically to King’s concept of law “under God,” he seemed instead to point to lessons of secular morality. Duncan said kids can learn “the life lessons of valuing everybody, treating everybody the way they should be treated, (and) protesting but doing so in a non-violent manner.”
Duncan also told CNSNews.com that King’s presence in the public discourse shaped his life as a public servant.
“(For) kids like me growing up, his influence was extraordinary,” he said. “I don’t know if I’d be in public service if it were not for the influence he’s had on my life.”
Byron Garrett, CEO of the National Parent Teacher Association also attended the event and more explicitly explained that in teaching King’s views on moral law, it was “important” to comply with the separation of church and state.
“It’s fine if you’re teaching it in the context of history,” he said, but “not to the exclusion of other religions,” Garrett said.
National Education Association President Dennis van Roekel disagreed, however, lamenting the “narrowing” of public curricula.
“I think rich history in schools is absolutely essential,” he told CNSNews.com. “It’s kind of sad right now how they’re narrowing the curriculum.”
“I think that we ought to expose people to ideas--that’s what was done for us. We heard those ideas. I think it’s just part of a good education,” he continued. “You can’t be taught one side; you have to hear all sides. That’s how you get a good education.”
The Kids for King conference was held on the west side of the Tidal Basin, where a memorial for King is planned for construction.
The initiative asks kids to “write an essay, create a piece of art, or produce a short video” to show what they have learned about King’s ideals of “Democracy, Justice, Love and Hope.”
The best entries will earn students a trip to the nation’s capital in the fall of 2010.