Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Rights and Obligations

The other day I read an interesting story in the Houston Chronicle about a local family with an autistic son. The family had tried for years to educate their son in the public school system, with terrible results. The boy was not learning, not socializing, and acted out violently towards his peers. So the parents pulled him from public school and placed him in a private school designed for children with extraordinary educational needs. The boy received close instruction, one-on-one attention and interaction, and other instructional changes that helped him grow and learn. Soon the boy was learning, interacting, and functioning on a much higher level. His grades improved and the parents were happy with the results. Only one problem, though: this private instruction was expensive. They had no choice but to send their child back to public school, where he soon floundered. But the parents felt they had an inherent right to the best education methods available for their son.

So, they sued the local school district, claiming that the school district failed to provide competent accommodations for their son and his disability. The parents claimed that the school district had a duty to either provide competent, specialized care for their son or to reimburse the parents for their private school costs. The school opted for the former option, but there was a slight problem: after several attempts at trying to hire a specialized instructor for their son, the school district ran out of options. No one wanted the job. No one applied. So the parents are back in court, claiming that they have a right to have a specialized instructor—or to pay for the private schooling.

Truly this will be an interesting "battle of rights."What we have run into is the logical conclusion of rights run amok. When someone has a right, it means that someone else has a corresponding duty. If you have a right to life, it means that someone has a duty to not kill you. If you have a right to liberty, it means that someone has a duty not to restrain you. If you have a right to your property, it means the someone has a duty to not steal your property. These all make sense when we discuss libertarian rights—meaning the right to do or to say or to believe certain things. These rights come with corresponding duties of omission; they merely require that others refrain from doing certain actions that would impede those rights. So far so good—these rights generally correspond with a truly free society.

But what about "rights" that entitle us to receive certain things, like abortions, education, and health care? Those rights require others to perform certain functions and provide certain goods or services (and they do not flow from a free society). In this case, the child's right to an equivalent, competent education provided by the state means that someone has the affirmative duty to teach that child. But what if no one wants to teach him? What if no one is able to teach him successfully? What if no one applies for the job? What if the private school teacher who originally had success decides to quit? What then? When push comes to shove, which right wins: the right of the child to have a competent education or the right of a free person not to teach?

We have to be careful to remember that rights come from God, not a government. That's why the Declaration of Independence says we are "endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights." Rights exist independent of our government. Therefore, we must look to scripture—God's word—to know what our rights are as human beings. And—spoiler alert—free, public education is not one of them. In fact, parents have a duty to raise (literally, inculcate, or create a culture for) their children "in the nurture and admonition of the Lord." So I guess you could say that children of Christian parents have a right to a Christian education. But I digress...

I think everyone agrees that people have certain rights, but where those rights come from is hotly contested. And its the where that determines the what. It's like two builders who are building houses with similar materials and blueprints, but with completely different foundations. The wise man builds his house upon the rock of Scripture, but the foolish man builds his house upon the sands (or post-modern goo). And when the rains of "tolerance" come, the house built on sand washes away. What you're left with is chaos in trying to determine which way is up.

Another issue here is freedom and the nature of a free society. If we live in a country where—theoretically—someone could be forced to teach an autistic child against their will, do we really live in a free society? A biblical understanding of rights tells us that true rights do not require compulsory service from someone else. That is not freedom. True rights create freedom in that they free us to serve others with a willing conscience. Sorta like how free grace makes us free to obey and delight in God. See the similarities? That house was built on the rock.

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