GOVERNMENT AND RELIGION. Keeping Uncle Sam out of the pulpit

LEONARD LEVY cultivates tiny bonsai trees - and dynamic ideas about the United States Constitution. The former give him enormous personal satisfaction; the latter won him a Pulitzer Prize. When Mr. Levy isn't wearing his gardening cap, he has on his academic hat as Andrew W. Mellon professor of humanities at the Claremont Graduate School, where he's taught since 1970. In his living room, he talks about church and state.

``Government should aid religion,'' Levy says flatly, quickly explaining: ``Our constitutional system, by separating church and state, aids religion in the only way that government should aid religion - by keeping hands off.''

Levy adds that while the First Amendment forbids the promotion of religion by government and any entanglement of the two, ``experience shows without doubt that religion prospers, becomes mighty, becomes powerful, when left alone by government.''

The wall of separation - which some believe has locked religion out of the public arena and weakened the impact of church values on society - actually ``allows religion to thrive on the basis of private, voluntary support,'' the Claremont scholar insists.

``Religion works well when it is not forced on people [by government] and they can make their own choices,'' Levy says.

Why, then, in this atmosphere of religious freedom, have issues of public prayer and government aid to parochial schools become so divisive in the United States today?

Levy notes that throughout history, few issues have been as important to people as religion. ``It seizes them to the very depths of their innermost existence,'' he says. As a result, those who believe so deeply in religion are sometimes offended by an official position that government should be neutral about religion. ``They think that religion is the basis ... of all good things. And they think that neutrality toward religion is favoring irreligion.

``The issue is not whether religion is a good thing. The question, rather, is whether a particular governmental practice has violated the principle that religion and government should be kept separate.''

Levy stresses that the ``real purpose'' of the establishment clause in the Constitution (``Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion'') ``is to protect religion from government.'' The most recent of Levy's 10 books is on the Constitution's establishment clause.

``Historically, government has damaged religion. Whenever government intercedes in religious matters, it corrupts religion. Religion is a matter that is so personal - it is so intimate a thing, it is so fragile, it is so sacred, too - that this is not a place for government to be involved,'' he adds.

Reviewing the role of the US Supreme Court in cases relating to church and state, Levy points out that the justices have generally agreed, up to now, that prayer or teaching religion in the public schools is a violation of the establishment clause. He says, however, that the court has been inconsistent in other school-related church and state matters.

Levy gives an illustration: ``It is constitutional [for the state] to give free textbooks to parochial school children on the condition that they are the same texts that are [used] in the public schools. But you cannot give a kid an atlas or a tape or a recorder or different kinds of instructional aids.'' The theory is that the latter provision ``is not for the benefit of the child; it's a permanent asset for the benefit of the school.

``Some of these things are so hair-splitting that I think that they open the court to the criticism that it has been inconsistent,'' he says.

As a church-state separatist, Levy struggles intellectually to see if there is any way he can accept the idea of ``principled accommodation'' when it comes to public aid for parochial schools or tax deductions for parents whose children attend such schools.

He cites Supreme Court cases from Michigan and New York in which the courts ruled narrowly against aid to parochial schools and a Minnesota decision, on the other hand, that accepted indirect aid to parochial schools in the form of parental tax relief.

Both, he says, present problems. ``People are sending their children to private schools as a result of their ... need to satisfy themselves religiously.

``But they are doing the rest of us a service. It is relieving the public school system of the cost that it would have to underwrite,'' if parochial school children went to public school.

Further, the church schools tend to be more crime-free and drug-free, Levy points out. ``There are a lot of people of different faiths who want to send their children to some private, sectarian school because it is safer to be there.''

Given these sympathies, however, he concedes it would be extremely difficult to justify public aid to such institutions, ``because their fundamental mission is to teach religion.''

Levy is critical of the ruling that upheld a Minnesota statute allowing parents to deduct a portion of school tuition costs from their income tax. He says the court accepted this law because it is ``nonpreferential'' and applies to children who attend public schools as well as private ones. Opponents had challenged the statute, pointing out that there are no tuition costs and few other fees associated with public education. Levy opposes the measure more on the basis of what he calls government ``entanglement'' with religion.

The current yardstick used by the courts is the so-called ``lemon test'': A law is in conflict with the establishment clause if, in effect, it establishes a state religion, shows preference for one religious group over others, or unduly entangles church and government.

Does the First Amendment absolutely bar religion from the school door? By no means, says Levy. He insists that it is the proper role of education - including public education - to ``show the important role that religion plays in our lives.''

He suggests that this kind of enlightenment would be a particularly worthy pursuit during the US Constitution's bicentennial year.

``Religion has been the dominating force in our lives,'' Levy points out. ``You can't understand the American Revolution without understanding the role of religion.

``How can you teach American history without showing why the Puritans came here originally?'' he asks.

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