Race, religion, and law

The American people can wholeheartedly support the US Supreme Court ruling on the issue of federal tax exemptions for private schools. By upholding the power of the Internal Revenue Service to deny tax-exempt status to private schools that discriminate on the basis of race, the high court has come down squarely in the tradition of decisions since the landmark case of Brown vs. the Board of Education in 1954. Its message is unequivocal: Whether in strictly constitutional terms or in terms of practical public policy, the court remains committed to the principle that government action may not support racial discrimination. In the ringing words of Chief Justice Warren Burger:

''There can no longer be any doubt that racial discrimination in education violates deeply and widely accepted views of elementary justice. The government has a fundamental, overriding interest in eradicating racial discrimination in education - discrimination that prevailed, with official approval, for the first 165 years of this nation's history.''

Especially striking - and heartening - is the fact the justices were almost unanimous in their decision, with a majority of 8 to 1. It will be noticed, too , that this is a conservative court that has ruled along similar lines on other civil rights as well as religious issues. The Reagan administration has thus been dealt a major rebuff in its effort to provide tax benefits for parochial and other independent schools.

In this instance the President sought to revoke the 1970 IRS policy of cutting off tax exemptions to the fundamentalist Bob Jones University and the Goldsboro Christian Schools because of their racially biased practices. The administration argued that the Internal Revenue Service could not take such action without authorization of Congress. The court disagreed, in effect saying that government must not only uphold the principle of racial equality in the public sector but must apply this principle in dealing with tax laws and the private sector.

This, of course, raises some interesting questions. If the IRS is permitted to enforce applications of public policy - in this case policy against racial discrimination - what other instances might it also consider to be matters of public policy? Sex discrimination, say? Could it, for instance, forbid tax exemptions to independent schools that do not accept handicapped individuals? Justice Powell, while he concurred in the court's opinion, nonetheless expressed concern about its broader implications. It is plain that the issue of where one draws the line of government power is still not clear-cut and will need to be resolved as time goes on.

Meanwhile, the high court's ban against tax exemptions for biased schools should not be taken as a church-state issue and certainly not as a putdown of religion. Many religious fundamentalists are critical of the court and of what they see as state support for a secularization of society. Their concerns about the need for religious training, for morally based education, and for religious freedom are understandable. We share them. The difficulty lies in a misconception of religious liberty and a failure to recognize that the claims of a free exercise of religion must be carried out in conjunction with other constitutional rights and laws - in this case, laws against racial discrimination.

Religious groups are not prevented from establishing schools which practice racial bias. But should they have the privilege of special government help - help which would indirectly reinforce discriminatory policies that are unacceptable to society at large? Such help would be discriminatory in itself, since it would push education in a given direction, encouraging the establishment of segregated private schools. In fact, because of the tax-exempt status, many segregated non-church-related white academies were set up in the South as a means of circumventing court orders to integrate the public schools.

Let it not be forgotten, either, that religious institutions already receive benefits from the government because charitable contributions are tax deductible. Care must be taken that no tax advantage be given to one religious group or denomination over another but that all be treated equally.

In sum, the Supreme Court is not trying to ''diminish the importance of religion, and thus morality,'' as President Reagan declared in connection with an earlier court decision banning organized prayer in public schools. It is saying - if we interpret the decision correctly - that government action must be guided by the Constitution and by the civil rights statutes stemming therefrom. When it is, religious liberty - and civil rights - are preserved for all.

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