03/19/2013 02:26 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Homeschool Advocates in Texas Co-opting Civil Rights Movement

Some think that marriage equality is the civil rights fight of our time. Patrick Stewart made news when he called domestic violence against women the "single greatest human rights violation of our generation." But here in Texas, we've got a much bigger fight on our hands: Kids who are homeschooled or who go to private and parochial schools want access to the state's public school sports leagues. Where is Dr. King when we need him?

Texas State Sen. Dan Patrick is from the Republican Party, and he's here to help. He thinks private charter schools should get public funding and wants to force public school sports leagues to include homeschoolers and private and parochial schools. And because Patrick is the Republican chair of the Education Committee, he'll probably get his way.

Texas high school football coaches oppose the idea because it could fund the creation of college football factories masquerading as charter schools. Last year Sports Illustrated reported on Eastern Christian Academy High School, an online charter school "attended" by 54 students, 14 of whom already had received scholarship offers to play big-time college football.

Patrick hails from the aggrieved wing of the Religious Right that equates reproductive rights with the Holocaust, but when Patrick invoked racial segregation to describe the status quo of high school sports, the committee room fell silent.

"If you were black in this state before the civil rights movement, it didn't function for you," said Patrick. "And now I feel there's discrimination against Catholics and Christians in these parochial schools. And the same testimony would've been given before this committee in the 1950s: 'It's gonna be on an unlevel playing field if we let those black players play.' Traditions must be broken. People must be accepted. And no one should be discriminated against in Texas."

I only went to public school, so perhaps the lynchings and fire hoses that kids in Catholic school faced escaped my notice. Maybe homeschoolers, ensconced in the loving attention of their parents, suffered their deprivations secretly. So I asked someone who went to segregated schools in Alabama in the 1950s whether Sen. Patrick was mining a new vein of discrimination.

"He's so inarticulate it was a little difficult to under what he was talking about it," said Dr. Bob Zellner, a veteran of the civil rights movement. "It was certainly objectionable."

Segregationists burned a 38-foot-tall cross on the lawn of Zellner's college dormitory after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. recruited him into the movement. As the first white southerner to be a Field Secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, Zellner was arrested 18 times in seven states on charges such as "inciting the black population to acts of war and violence against the white population", which, if you think about it, is kind of like the St. Marks Lions not getting to play Dallas Carter under the Friday night lights.

"Here is a person with a complete right-wing agenda who is calling on movement principles," said Zellner of Patrick. "I don't understand how he could equate some discrimination facing parochial and private school children with what black kids faced in the south."

Zellner spilled blood to integrate the South, but he's a product of all-white public schools, so maybe he just didn't understand the obvious parallels between parochial football schedules and racial segregation. So I asked the Rev. Jesse Jackson whether Patrick was right.

"Home school is a choice. Legal slavery was not a choice. It was a legal predicament. Therefore it cannot be compared," said Jackson, who said Patrick's appropriation of civil rights language "manipulates and confuses whites."

You can make an argument that it's wrong to deprive homeschooled kids from participating in public-school sports, even discriminatory. Most states have what are called "Tim Tebow laws," named for the homeschooled Heisman winner. But Patrick and other Republicans offend reason when they equate that to racial segregation, especially when they're also trying to redirect tax dollars to private charter schools.

"I'm always on guard when right-wingers use the principals of the movement to support private segregation, and I think that's what they're doing," said Zellner.

"Republicans make the most absurd arguments, and sometimes they recycle them," said Jackson.

Patrick is determined to end what preacher John Hagee called the "separate but equal" status quo, and on Mar. 12, the bill sailed out of his committee. Despite universal opposition from civil rights leaders, he shall overcome.