Church-state separation still endangered – state and local laws threaten freedom of religion

Church-state separation still endangered – state and local laws threaten freedom of religion – Column

Edd Doerr

Ronald Reagan and George Bush are history, and Bill Clinton–pro-public education and pro-choice on abortion–is in. So we don’t have to worry about church-state issues for a while and can turn our attention to other pressing matters. Right?

Wrong! Clinton’s election has removed the threat to church-state separation from the White House, but the battlegrounds have now simply shifted to the state and local levels. Let’s look at the three major problem areas: religion in public schools, abortion rights, and tax aid to sectarian schools.

Although the US. Supreme Court in 1992 ruled that the First Amendment bars school-sponsored prayers at public-school graduation ceremonies, televangelist Pat Robertson’s so-called American Center for Law and Justice sent letters to all 15,500 school districts in the country telling them that student-led prayers at graduations are okay. Despite the fact that this practice is probably equally unconstitutional, many school districts around the country, influenced by local fundamentalist pressures, are following Robertson’s advice. Students still have to attend graduation ceremonies and an official prayer is still a school-sponsored prayer, whether offered by a cleric or by a student. Further litigation will be necessary.

Bill Clinton has lifted the Reagan, Bush gag rule against discussion of abortion at federally funded family-planning clinics for poor women, and he also broadly supports freedom of conscience for women on abortion. But much more is needed. Fewer physicians are per, forming abortions now than a decade ago, thanks to harassment and even death threats by anti-choice fanatics–threats made all too credible by the murder of Dr. David Gunn in Florida earlier this year. Also, fewer and fewer physicians are being trained in medical schools to do the procedure.

Hopefully, the French-developed abortifacient drug RU-486 will soon be available to American women. But if all women are to be able to exercise their fundamental right to choose, Congress will need to pass the Freedom of Choice Act, without encumbering amendments, to bar state interference with that right. Congress should also pass the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act. Both pieces of legislation face determined resistance by ultraconservative forces in Congress.

As for tax aid to sectarian schools, while the threat to have Congress tax us for the support of religious institutions has subsided, new battles are breaking out in the states. Even though a voucher plan to provide millions of dollars annually to sectarian schools was soundly defeated by Colorado voters last fall, new campaigns are getting underway.

The Wisconsin legislature is considering a tuition-reimbursement tax-credit plan for state aid to parochial and other private schools. The Illinois legislature, having just defeated one plan, is considering another, more modest pilot voucher project similar to one defeated recently in the Maryland legislature.

Pennsylvania’s legislature is considering a new voucher bill only a year and a half after voting down an earlier version. This time, the voucher bill is dressed up with provisions for public school choice and for eleventh, and twelfth-grade students to take college classes for graduation credit–whiffs of perfume designed to cover the stink of the basic voucher plan.

The biggest threat of all is in California, where Republican Governor Pete Wilson has moved a referendum on a multibillion-dollar voucher proposal from June 1994 back to November 1993–a move seemingly designed to make it harder for defenders of public education and church-state separation to organize effective resistance. And this in a state that has just had to cope with a $14 billion deficit.

Backers of these voucher and tuition tax-credit plans claim that they want to enhance parental choice in education, but this is deceptive. Parents might want to choose their children’s schools, but it is really the private schools which choose their students. They take only those they want and, thus, give preference to “above average” kids from families more affluent than the public-school average over slow learners, the handicapped, and kids from dysfunctional families. Since 90 percent of non-public schools are sectarian, they tend to hire only “religiously correct” teachers and to use textbooks that reinforce the doctrines of the sect that runs the school. As Albert J. Menendez has shown in his penetrating analysis of the textbooks used in fundamentalist schools, Visions of Reality: What Fundamentalist Schools Teach (available for $14.95 from Americans for Religious Liberty, P.O. Box 6656, Silver Spring, MD 20916), a great many nonpublic schools engage in sectarian indoctrination to such an extent that they guarantee a homogeneous sectarian student body and faculty.

Nonpublic schools, unlike public schools, need not accept children with physical or mental handicaps, whose education can cost up to eight times as much as the approximately $5,500 per year spent on public-school kids. Nonpublic schools also offer lower pay and less job security to teachers.

The campaign to get tax support for sectarian private education has led to unprecedented levels of cooperation between Catholic fundamentalists and Protestant fundamentalists, who for centuries were bitter antagonists. This cooperation is manifested not only in drives for parochiaid but also in the campaign against abortion rights and in the recent linkup of Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition and Cardinal O’Connor in New York City’s school board elections.

It is vitally important to note a new alignment on the religio-political scene. The time is long past when Americans were divided along Catholic-Protestant lines. And it is also wildly erroneous to imagine the country divided between humanists and freethinkers on one side and religious folk on the other.

The real fissure in America today has on one side the moderate-to-liberal Catholics, Protestants, Jews, humanists, and others who support church-state separation, civil liberties, abortion rights, and public education; and on the other, the ultraconservative or fundamentalist Catholics, fundamentalist Protestants, and a few very conservative Jews who draw together to undermine the democratic ideal of a secular, pluralistic society. The first configuration favors an open, diverse, cooperative society that honors mutual respect, while the second would balkanize society into sectarian and ideologica enclaves divided by dogma, suspicion, distrust, and bigotry.

We Americans of the 1990s will have to decide which future we want for our children and grandchildren.

Meanwhile, I invite all readers who want to do something now to help preserve church-state separation in California, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Illinois, and other trouble spots to contact me at P.O. Box 6656, Silver Spring, MD 20916.

Edd Doerr, former vice-president and board chair of the American Humanist Association, is executive director of Americans for Religious Liberty.

COPYRIGHT 1993 American Humanist Association

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