Ethical Dilemma: Will It Look Bad If I Don’t Want to Pay for My Nephews’ Christian Private School?

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Supporting Nephews’ Christian Education: This year, my sister-in-law tragically lost her husband to cancer, leaving behind three young sons. They are quite religious (Christian Reformed), while my husband (her brother) and I are not.

Because of this tragic loss, the community has been throwing fundraisers to help her out. I recently learned that the money received from the various efforts is going to my nephews’ future private Christian education. They live in a very nice area in an award-winning public school district. They are not my children, so I obviously have no say in their education decisions. But am I ethically bound to support this venture by contributing monetarily? Will it look bad if I do not attend these fundraising events? I should mention my SIL and I have a salty relationship at best.

—I Prefer Not To

Dear Prefer,

You absolutely don’t have to support this choice, contribute to it, or attend the events. It sounds as though your SIL has ample support independent of you (and your spouse).

I wonder how (or whether) the funds raised are intended for the Christian school. Are people raising money with the expectation that your SIL plans to use them for the private Christian school, or is that just what your SIL is planning to apply them to, unbeknownst to the donors? It strikes me as surprising that people would be leaping to fundraise for this when the boys could get a quality education free at the local public school. Maybe they would be as unsettled as you if they realized she plans to spend money on parochial school when the boys could get a quality (but secular) education at no cost.

But if your SIL is committed to the Christian school and needs money for that, and people are eager to help her, that’s up to her and those who choose to chip in. You don’t need to, nor should you if it goes against your grain. I wouldn’t worry whether or not it “looks bad.” Wouldn’t it look worse if you appeared with your teeth clenched, trying not to voice your objections?

If you feel you must say something about why you aren’t participating, explain that you feel your SIL has this covered, and you prefer to reserve your support for other things your nephews may need now or in the future, such as a college fund (that can be applied to schools the boys themselves select).

Do what you can now to establish a relationship with each of your nephews directly, in the event that your SIL ever decides to edge you out. Depending on their ages, you could babysit or take them out for a meal, movie, museum, game, hike, mini-golf, etc., both to give their mom (who is now a single parent) a much-needed break and to give you quality time with the kids. As for financial contributions, you can designate your gifts for specific purposes you choose, or give them things you want them to have rather than cash that their mom will control.

Although there certainly are cases of high-quality education delivered through parochial schools, and, as you suggest, those may be superior to the public schools in some neighborhoods (but not theirs), I advocate supporting and improving public and secular education. Check out AHA Executive Director Roy Speckhardt’s article on the problems with religious education.

What do you think would happen if, after collecting the funds that your SIL plans to use for the religious school, one or more of your nephews lobbied to attend the free public school—or there just wasn’t enough money for other things the family needs? My guess is your SIL is under no obligation to use the donations for the religious school, and in that case they could and should be redirected to other uses. So if your SIL finds herself short of cash after all the fundraisers are over, diverting the parochial school funds to things like food and shelter would be like Scarlett O’Hara transforming her curtains into a gown so she can go out and take care of business. Let’s hope your SIL gets her priorities in order, and don’t allow her to compromise yours.