Has the wall between church and state become more like a movable partition? The Supreme Court decision this week allowing public school employees to teach in parochial settings raises that question.
This ruling, without question, had practical elements in its favor. It sprang from a New York City case involving the federal Title I education program, which is designed to boost the academic skills of disadvantaged youth. The program is mandated for all eligible children, whether their schools are public or private.
In 1985, the high court held that public employees could not teach Title I classes in reading, math, and other subjects within parochial schools. The entwinement of government and religion would be too great, the court reasoned, consistent with earlier precedents. That ruling led to the use of vans parked near the schools as classrooms for Title I students - at a cost to New York and other cities of millions of dollars a year.
Since then, the court has countenanced specific exceptions to its 1985 ruling, such as allowing a state-paid sign language interpreter to accompany a student at a church-run high school. A thin majority of the court, five justices, saw the Title I case as a logical extension of those rulings. The mere presence of a publicly paid teacher in a church school doesn't mean government is advancing religious teaching, said the lead opinion.
But, as Justice David Souter argued in dissent, the key question in church-state matters is where a "principled line" must be drawn. A blurred line too easily becomes no line, as is underscored by newly encouraged proponents of vouchers to allow tax dollars to go directly to parochial schools. They greeted the Title I decision with cheers. Three state cases involving vouchers are now threading their way toward the Supreme Court.
Has the court set course toward such truly massive breaches of the church-state wall? That's by no means clear. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who wrote this week's decision, indicated that one reason the court ruled as it did was that the new Title I setup would still not allow public money to reach "the coffers of religious schools." That could not be said of a voucher system.
American society unquestionably has a strong interest in improving the education of children. That interest can certainly be advanced without weakening the foundational concept of church-state separation. A "principled line" must be maintained.