A Flexible Church-State Wall

This week the Supreme Court continued its perennial work of deciding just where, and how high or low, the "wall" between church and state should be. In a case involving the use of public school facilities by an evangelical Christian club, the court lowered the wall a bit.

Dangerous? Not necessarily. The court's six-justice majority made essentially three points:

First, that the town, by inviting community groups to use its public school buildings after school hours, created what the court called a "limited public forum." Second, that to exclude religion from that forum, which includes such issues as character development, was to discriminate against a viewpoint, violating the First Amendment.

Third, that the court found that allowing the club to use public school space would not be an "establishment of religion," prohibited by the Constitution. The town of Milford, N.Y., had argued that giving the club a public setting would imply official backing for the group's views. If the setting had been a classroom during school hours, or a ceremony or sports event sponsored by the school, that argument would have held. But a club meeting after school, with voluntary attendance through parents' permission, is another matter, said the court.

The dissenters in this case argued that there are degrees of religious speech - from discussion of ideas to worship to proselytizing - and that public officials should be allowed to decide what's appropriate. The meetings held by the club were marked by prayers and spoken commitments to Christ. The dissenters also pointed out that coercion of children to attend religiously oriented meetings in a public school could be hidden or subtle.

Those are reasonable concerns. Religious groups given the use of public facilities have a duty to use them responsibly.

But the basic point made by the court is reasonable: Religion, and the perspective it offers on issues of public concern, has a constitutionally protected place in open forums controlled by government. Now for the tricky task of applying this rule fairly to all religions in a diverse land.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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