School doors crack open to religion

House vote to allow Ten Commandments in public schools stirs

In public schools, organized prayer is prohibited. But how about reading verses from the Bible? Or pausing every morning for a collective "moment of silence"? Or posting the Ten Commandments in school hallways?

For most of this century, America's public schools have been the major battleground between those who want children in the classroom to be taught a religion-based moral code and those who insist that the US Constitution prohibits any such mingling of church and state.

To the dismay of people who believe this moral grounding should be part of public education, church-state separationists have held sway for decades - winning through the courts a ban on school prayer, readings from the Bible, and, in some cases, a "moment of silence."

But now, several forces are blurring that distinct line between affairs of church and state - with schools again at the heart of the debate. These include broad societal shifts, such as post-Littleton concerns that a moral vacuum exists among youths, as well as specific court rulings, such as one allowing taxpayer dollars to be spent on parochial-school tuition.

"There haven't been any dynamite attacks, but there's been significant erosion," says Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AUSCS), based in Washington.

Another indication of that "erosion" came last week, when the US House voted 248 to 180 to allow states to display the Ten Commandments in public schools.

Few civil libertarians expect the measure to become law, and even if it did, they say the courts would probably strike it down. (In 1980, the US Supreme Court slapped down the right of a Kentucky school to display the Ten Commandments in its hallway.)

But its supporters hail it as a "cultural response" to the teen violence evident this spring during the Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colo.

"The Dow Jones may be about to hit 11000, but people are surrounded by a culture of death," says Randy Tate, senior vice president of the Christian Coalition in Washington. "They're looking for solutions, and faith and family are two of the answers."

To Mr. Tate, the House vote was a political response to "growing public pressure to let churches and synagogues play a larger role in our society." In fact, recent decisions hint a greater willingness by the judiciary to give religion a more public forum.

Cracks in church-state wall

The US Supreme Court recently said Milwaukee parents can use publicly funded education vouchers to educate their children in parochial schools. An Alabama judge has been permitted to display the Ten Commandments in his courtroom and to administer prayers before each court session. Some states now allow "moment of silence" policies in public schools.

In Congress, bills dealing with prayer in public schools - a perennial issue - gained momentum last year, says Welton Gaddy of the Interfaith Alliance in Washington, which opposes such bills.

Of course some courts have come down strongly in favor of maintaining a razor-sharp church-state division. Vermont's Supreme Court this month refused to allow public vouchers to pay parochial school tuition. And recent court cases elsewhere supported the rights of teachers to keep religion out of their classrooms.

What troubles some civil libertarians now is the growing sense that a fearful American public may be willing to sacrifice basic liberties in its search for answers to events like that in Littleton.

"There have been a number of clear and compelling reactions to Columbine, but one that is not healthy is this effort to find a quick fix to a very complex problem," says Mr. Lynn of AUSCS. "I don't think any reasonable person believes that force-fed religion has ever prevented a crime or saved a soul."

Filling gap in moral guidance

At the same time, however, public hunger for a return to faith-based answers cannot be dismissed simply as a reaction to Littleton. More and more, it seems, a generation that is getting less religious instruction at home and at church is more interested in exploring it at school. And some teachers - perhaps in response to a perception that their students need more moral guidance - seem willing to answer their questions.

In New Hampton, Iowa, high school students can get time off during the day to study religion across the street at St. John's School of Religion. About one-third of the 470 students choose to use their free period at St. John's (where courses in Roman Catholicism are offered).

It's not an unusual arrangement in this part of the country, and principal John Andersen says no one in the homogenous farm town of 4,000 has questioned the 30-year system. But what is new in recent years is the growing interest in allowing religion to find a place in the school's classrooms as well. "There seems to be more comfort now in talking about those issues as part of life," Mr. Andersen says.

That's not to say the majority of teachers feel free to introduce religion in class. For many Americans - at both ends of the political spectrum - separation between church and state remains imperative. Even many who agree today's youth are spiritually needy remain profoundly uncomfortable with the idea of permitting public schools to fill the gap.

"Kids are not getting what they need at home," says Nina Shokraii Rees, education analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington. "But that doesn't make it a good idea for schools to take that on."

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