The Walls Come Crumbling Down

I've always thought the U.S. Constitution was pretty clear. The federal government -- and government in general -- has no business interfering in the religious beliefs, or endorsing the beliefs, of the American people.

Unfortunately, this simple concept is losing ground in a world that wants to force religion into places it does not belong. The federal government and its local and state counterparts across the country have pushed hard in recent years to tear down the wall between church and state.

Eight state legislatures are considering legislation that would allow the Ten Commandments and other religious texts to be hung in schools, despite a 1980 U.S. Supreme Court ruling prohibiting such postings. In Florida, schools have made use of "Bible History" classes to sneak bible study into the classroom and to proselytize on behalf of Christianity. Other states are considering legislation requiring silent prayer before the school day.

And conservative groups have been pushing to allow public education money to be distributed through a voucher system and spent by parents on religious schools -- a setup that already exists in Milwaukee.

According to Jeffrey Rosen, legal affairs editor of The New Republic, a backlash against church-state separation was inevitable. In a piece in the Jan. 30 New York Times Magazine, he said religious groups saw the strict separation of church and state as limiting to religion, creating a second-class status for believers:

"In an era when religious identity now competes with race, sex and ethnicity as a central aspect of how Americans define themselves, it seems like discrimination -- the only unforgivable sin in a multicultural age -- to forbid people to express their religious beliefs in an increasingly fractured public sphere."

Rosen said the history of church-state separation depended on the antagonism between the Catholic Church and the various Protestant denominations, with the Protestant congregations viewing the church-state wall as a way to keep public money out of the hands of Catholic schools. As Catholic schools accept more and more non-Catholics, the notion that public money should be kept from their coffers holds less sway, he says.

In addition, privatization of government services has created an opening for religious groups, he writes. The U.S. Congress, when changing federal welfare rules, granted states the ability to contract the provision of social services to religious groups, putting money into church treasuries while offering greater opportunities for proselytizing.

But the erosion of the church-state wall will have dangerous consequences down the line for our democracy. According to the Interfaith Working Group, a coalition of religious organizations, congregations, and clergy, the church-state wall is necessary to ensure religious liberty and tolerance. "Religious intolerance often results in calls to limit religious liberty, which limits religious diversity, which, as a result, has historically ended in even less religious tolerance," it says in its mission statement.

In Florida, for instance, the People For the American Way found that "Bible History" classes were "framed and taught from Christian perspectives," despite a U.S. Supreme Court finding that, if the Bible is to be taught, it must be taught objectively and as part of larger secular program. However, the organization discovered that "most, if not all," of the state's school districts were presenting the Bible according to a Protestant Christian point-of-view. Its examples include:

* the story of Adam and Eve is commonly referred to as "the Fall of Man," a phrase that does not appear in the Bible, and the serpent is referred to as "Satan" -- Christian interpretations not shared by other faiths.

* the "Old" Testament, the Christian name for the Jewish Bible, is taught "as predictive of, or in light of, the "New" Testament.

* books important to Catholics but not Protestants are either not taught or referred to the "Apocryphal Books" and not as scripture.

This approach obviously does not offer students a lesson in the history of the bible, religion or spirituality. As People for the American Way points out, it only serves to indoctrinate students into a particular way of thinking -- a Protestant Christian way of looking at the world.

This seems a clear violation of the establishment clause -- an extreme violation, obviously, but one that is repeating itself across the country. The display of the Ten Commandments in classrooms, for instance, creates an appearance of favoritism in violation of the First and 14th amendments. And organized school prayer, as the IWG points out, can force "some students to participate in religious observances that may go against their beliefs, or singles them out for their religious differences if they don't participate."

Ultimately, these intersections of religion and government have a deleterious effect on democracy by pitting religious groups against each other. "Religious tolerance, religious liberty, and religious diversity are interdependent," the IWG says. "Religious tolerance leads to religious liberty; religious liberty creates religious diversity; and religious diversity requires religious tolerance."

If the circle is broken, however, the entire structure comes apart and our culture, our nation, is in great peril.

Below are the Web addresses for several organizations that work to protect religious freedom and to maintain the wall between church and state:

The Interfaith Working Group:

The People For the American Way:

The American Civil Liberties Union:

Hank Kalet is a newspaper editor and poet living in South Brunswick, N.J.

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