Schools at center of coming church-state battles

The following survey of church and state issues begins a new feature that will appear from time to time in the Monitor.

Despite recent reinforcements from voters, the symbolic wall of separation between church and state is still under siege.

The constitutional provision that prohibits the establishment of religion or the conducting of religious activities in the public sector is being challenged as strongly as ever by the New Right, religious fundamentalists, and many political conservatives.

Battles continue to be waged over aid to parochial schools, voluntary school prayer, and the teaching of creationism.

Civil libertarians and citizens groups, including Americans United for Separation of Church and State - which opposes the intrusion of religion in the classroom - are closely watching the US Supreme Court's resolution of the Bob Jones University case due this term. A central question is whether this South Carolina school, which bans interracial dating, should be allowed federal tax-exempt status. The Reagan administration at first favored granting such a waiver but now is awaiting a high court decision.

Meanwhile, defenders of the ''wall'' got a welcome boost at the state level last week when initiatives in two states, Massachusetts and California, which would have allowed state aid to parochial and other private schools, were decisively rejected in the ballot box. The Massachusetts measure, strongly backed by the Roman Catholic Church, would have directly channeled public money to nonpublic schools under prescribed circumstances. The California initiative would have allowed a $5 million program of state-funded textbook aid to parochial and other schools.

Since 1967, nine states and the District of Columbia have all defeated tax aid plans to assist religious education. However, other attempts are expected perhaps as early as 1983. For example, there is a new effort in California to qualify an educational voucher plan for the ballot. This plan, if passed, would allow the use of public money for tuition at religious schools.

Meanwhile, a hot Senate debate shapes up next term over tuition tax-credit aid to students in private (including parochial) schools. It is estimated by the Senate Finance Committee studying the proposal that such a law would cost US taxpayers $900 million - allowing about $300 per student per year. Proponents insist that this aid would lighten the load of already overburdened public schools and encourage nondiscriminating private institutions. However, opponents say the measure is just another attempt to chip away at the ''wall'' and indirectly bolster denominational teachings with federal revenues.

The school prayer controversy continues to trigger highly emotional responses in many places. Opponents believe that the election of a more ''moderate'' House of Representatives with a few less ''Bible pounding'' hard-line conservatives may water down the chances of passage of a packet of coming bills.

Among them are those that would limit the US Supreme Court and federal courts jurisdiction in this area and a constitutional amendment establishing voluntary prayer or ''moments of silence'' in the schools. However, President Reagan has put his stamp of approval on the latter. And congressional advocates vow to carry on the fight in l983. These measures lacked the support to be brought to the floor last session.

Meanwhile, the school prayer debate continues to flare up in state legislatures, at the local level, in the courts, and on radio and television talk shows across the nation. States are going various ways. For example, in Tennessee a federal district judge recently struck down a law passed earlier in the year allowing a voluntary moment of silence in the schools for prayer and meditation. A similar law passed by New Jersey lawmakers now is awaiting the governor's signing amid strong controversy. New Mexico's ''moment of silence'' law is undergoing a federal court test. And in Alabama, a federal court has issued an injunction holding up implementation of a new law which permits teachers and professors to start their classes with a prayer.

Related issues include the question of whether Bible Clubs and other religious groups should be allowed to meet on high school and public college campuses. Conservative Christian groups generally favor this. And Sen. Mark Hatfield (R) of Oregon introduced legislation late last session which would allow this practice. Mr. Hatfield is expected to raise the issue again next year. Meanwhile, the US Supreme Court is reviewing a Nebraska case challenging the constitutionality of the state Legislature hiring a chaplain to open each session with a prayer.

Some of those who are staunch defenders of the wall of separation have mixed feelings on chaplain issue. Joseph L. Conn of Americans United, for instance, says his group is not taking a stand on this question. However, Mr. Conn adds that he would be more comfortable if tax dollars were not involved and there were assurances that public bodies rotated chaplains among the denominations.

And the debate continues - at present in the federal courts in Louisiana - whether schools that teach evolution should also be required to instruct students in the biblical theory of creation. School officials in Louisiana, joined by the American Civil Liberties Union, are seeking to throw out a state law that requires that dual theories be taught. A federal judge earlier this year declared a similar Arkansas law unconstitutional.

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