Morals and public money. In a pluralistic society, it is best for government to leave ethical and spiritual education to the private sector

CHURCHES have every right - and a responsibility - to promote sexual morality. And they should have, and do have, the freedom to foster such ethics through the teaching of specific religious doctrine. The ecclesiastical community, however, is not entitled to public funds to conduct this kind of instruction.

The United States Constitution's First Amendment, in fact, forbids such entanglement of religion and government. This is a protection both to churches and to the public sector.

Government, conversely, has authority to participate in debates about standards of morality. But it has no right to deny federal funds to nonreligious groups that do not advance a particular moral agenda.

Since taking office in 1981, the Reagan administration has been repeatedly rebuffed in its efforts to impose its own brand of values on others and to unduly involve government with religion. It has failed, for example, to get the courts to criminalize abortion. And it has been equally unsuccessful in acquiring a legal mandate for prayer in the schools and public aid to parochial education.

But these issues continue to arise in various forms.

For instance, the administration will soon be placed in the position of defending before the US Supreme Court the religious aspects of a 1981 law that authorizes the use of government funds by church groups to teach sexual morality to teen-agers. The controversial Adolescent Family Life Act (AFLA) is aimed, in part, at discouraging adolescent sexual relations through counseling and referral services.

Its challengers have noted that the government has dispersed to religious groups - mainly Roman Catholic - about 20 percent of the annual $30 million appropriated under this law.

One of the plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case, the Rev. W. Emmett Cocke, a Methodist minister from Virginia, says he opposes the law because it discriminates against his church. ``Those of us who believe in the legal option of abortion are disqualified from even making an application [for a federal grant],'' Mr. Cocke explains.

He joins several religious groups in opposing the act on First Amendment grounds.

US District Judge Charles Richey ruled last spring that the law was unconstitutional, on grounds it had the ``primary effect of advancing religion and fosters an excessive entanglement between government and religion.''

Judge Richey wrote that the law ``...explicitly permits religious organizations to be grantees, and envisions a direct role for those organizations in the education and counseling components of AFLA grants.''

In appealing this decision to the high court, administration officials contend that if the appellate ruling stands, ``large numbers of unmarried teen-agers, some pregnant and others likely to become so, may lose vital benefits that Congress intended them to have.''

Chief Justice William Rehnquist says it is important for the Supreme Court to review this case, because the lower court ruling invalidated a congressional law. This is believed to be the first time any court struck down a federal act as an impermissible establishment of religion.

Some church groups and civil liberties interests would be satisfied if only that portion of the law were invalidated that allows grants to religious groups. This would seem like a reasonable compromise - allowing secular groups to continue to use federal funds to educate young people on ethical questions without denominational overtones.

Religious groups would, of course, continue to stress moral values but without public funds.

Many administration opponents believe the real purpose of the law is to put through President Reagan's anti-abortion agenda - which has so far failed to muster congressional and court support.

Recently, a bipartisan group of 33 US senators protested a proposed new Health and Human Services regulation that would deny federal family planning money to hospitals, clinics, and others who disperse information on abortion.

There have been heated hearings on this rule, and a decision by Health Secretary Otis Bowen is due by mid-December.

In a pluralistic society, it is best for government to leave ethical and spiritual education to the private sector. Families and churches are well equipped to teach and reinforce standards. They don't need government - particularly the federal government - to help them or do the job for them.

One would think an administration that embraces the concept that the ``government that governs least governs best'' would understand this.

A Thursday column

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