Church and lawsuit

The coin of history is memory. Its modus operandi not fact, but comparison.

Decisions by public officials may be unique to their times, but invariably, national leaders trace the footsteps of those who came before. They look back so that they may move forward.

When it comes to government funding of church-run entities, President Thomas Jefferson took a few tentative steps more than 200 years ago. President Bush just made what he hopes will be many thousands more.

Jefferson wrote his close friend, James Madison, in 1809, informing President Madison of decisions that he, Jefferson, had made as president in 1807 on behalf of US interests in the Northwest Territory as a result of the Louisiana Purchase. "Gen. Dearborn and myself had concluded to purchase for the War-department [a] farm, near Detroit, now held by the Treasury office....

"On this farm we proposed to assemble the following establishments: Father Richard's school. He teaches the children of the inhabitants of Detroit....

"We proposed that the War department should furnish the farm and houses for the use of the school, gratis, and add [$]400 a year to the funds, and the benefits of the Institution should be extended to the boys also of the neighboring tribes, who were to be lodged, fed, and instructed there" ("The Republic of Letters: The Correspondence between Jefferson and Madison 1776-1826, vol. III", Norton).

The Rev. Gabriel Richard, a French-born member of the Sulpician order of the Roman Catholic Church, was a missionary to the Indians at Detroit. His mission would be the recipient of federal monies to maintain buildings and supplies with which he would educate and acculturate Indian boys and girls. (He was to go on to serve one term in the US House of Representatives.)

As president, one of Jefferson's major policy goals was to secure the allegiance of tribes in the western territories in any future war with England, or at least their neutrality.

He also desired the Indians' assimilation into white society. Education was one way to accomplish this. He reasoned that once their forested lands were acquired by whites (an inevitability in his eyes), they would no longer be able to sustain their native way of life through hunting.

It is difficult to conceive of Jefferson, coiner of the phrase "building a wall of separation between church and state" (in 1802), harboring any illusions that instruction in the Roman Catholic faith, at the very least, wouldn't be a byproduct of whatever education took place at the Detroit mission he was about to fund.

A public good would be served by funding facilities, and he was reconciled that public monies would not go to the direct propagation of faith, i.e., the government's establishment of a religion as prohibited by the First Amendment.

How interesting to read his words of almost 200 years ago. Even more so to note that Madison, a leading architect of the First Amendment as ratified by the states in 1791, made no adverse comments in reply to Jefferson though they were fully aware of the pitfalls of government entanglement with religion.

It is no stretch to point out that President Bush has made a similar decision today, albeit on a much greater scale, in proposing a federal expansion of "charitable choice" funding. He is looking for religious groups to be providers of non-religious services in meeting the needs of society's down and out.

On matters of church and state, the First Amendment simply reads: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

From the outset of the American experiment, these words have squirmed. The Supreme Court and other courts repeatedly have addressed their meaning for more than 200 years. There were no lawsuits over Jefferson's decision. There will be lawsuits over Bush's.

The devil is in the details, both political and legal. Jane Lampman points out in our cover story today how bedeviled we will be.

Comments? E-mail Ideas@csps.com.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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