The Church-State Balance

THE separation of church and state is a fixture in the American political landscape. It often looms into view on the Supreme Court docket, or in the legislative realm, where religious conservatives agitate for some form of school-prayer amendment to the US Constitution.

But church-state issues are hardly strangers in other lands, either. Any working, or aspiring, democracy has to decide how it will make room for fundamental rights of conscience and worship.

Consider these recent news items:

* Japan is rethinking its constitutional bar against governmental interference with religion in light of the Aum Shinri Kyo nerve-gas investigation. The group's suspicious activities should have been probed much earlier, say critics of the hands-off-religion policy. Others point out that the current provisions are a barrier to the religious persecution once common in Japan.

* Breaking with centuries of tradition, Sweden is about to cut the link between the Church of Sweden (Lutheran) and the country's government. No longer would children born in the country automatically be members of the church. And no longer will everyone pay taxes that help support the official church. Sweden's increasing diversity, including thousands of non-Christians, impels this change.

* Mexico continues its long struggle to arrive at an official modus vivendi with the Roman Catholic Church. Two American priests, working in the rebellion-torn state of Chiapas, were recently denied reentry to the country. The government claims these priests engage in political speech aimed at overthrowing the state. The church defends its clergy's right to champion the cause of Mexico's poor.

These examples, utterly different in setting, all involve the balance between state power and religious freedom. Striking that balance can be difficult in places where the state has had entrenched power, as in Eastern Europe or Mexico. Or where religion is considered an all-pervasive authority, as in some Muslim countries.

The right balance, however, always gives maximum breadth to individual conscience and spiritual inquiry. That means the less state involvement with religion, the better. Nothing else is compatible with genuine democracy.

The right balance always gives maximum breadth to individual conscience.

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