A Blurred Church-State Line?

Church-state issues are often seen as all-or-nothing propositions. In one camp are those who want public life free of any religious content. In the other are those who would have religious thoughts, words, and symbols flow freely into the public realm.

The tension between those extremes has increased with last week's Supreme Court ruling on school vouchers, the Bush administration's faith-based initiative, and a lower federal court ruling that the "under God" line in the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional (see story, page 2).

But the extremes are not where wisdom lies in these matters. There's considerable ground between them, occupied by the central concern that government remain "neutral" in its treatment of religion.

Certainly the words from the pledge pass that test. It may invoke monotheism, but it doesn't favor any sect. School prayer, by contrast, puts government squarely behind a particular expression of faith.

The court found vouchers "neutral" even if they go primarily to parochial schools. The key, it said, was that government's involvement was indirect (parents make the choices) and served a clear social need. That reasoning may also apply to funding for faith-based social agencies.

The church-state line may shift, but it definitely should not disappear.

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