Peter Pringle's America: Still faithful to a secular state?

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IN THE latest attempt to lower the wall between Church and state, hundreds of teenage schoolchildren skipped classes last week and marched down the main street of Jackson, the state capital of Mississippi, chanting 'We Want Prayer, We Want Prayer'.

The pupils demanded the reinstatement of their school principal, who had been sacked for allowing a pupil to read a 21-word prayer over the school intercom after morning assembly. This is a violation of the ban on school prayers. Under a Supreme Court ruling of 1962, schoolchildren may pray in groups, around the flagpole or wherever, before and after school. They may say grace to themselves in the school cafeteria, but anything more than that is forbidden.

If this were some sudden outburst confined to the southern Bible Belt, it would not cause much of a stir; but the trend has spread north as well. In Grand Rapids, Michigan, a federal judge ordered the removal of a picture of Jesus from a school hallway. The school attempted a compromise, adding pictures of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, but the judge again said no: the display promoted 'a particular religion', and was thus unconstitutional.

In New York the battle is between Church and synagogue. A group of Hassidic Jews in Orange County somehow persuaded the local authorities to open a special school for them because they said their children's distinctive dress and practices made it uncomfortable for them to be in a secular school. Now the local courts want to close down the special school, arguing that it amounts to de jure segregation of one religious group.

In its endless debate over the role of religion in public life, the US Supreme Court has agreed to review the Hassidic case, which is an especially tricky one because it involves not only the government's guarantee of the separation of Church and state but also government's duty to educate its citizens. The issue before the court is: to what extent must the secular state accommodate the needs of a particular religious group?

Reflecting the rise of militant Christians, the court has appeared ready to create more room for religious expression, but at the same time the Church-state wall is to be reinforced, not lowered. Among the early European settlers in America were groups who fled their homeland because of religious persecution. The US Constitution guarantees citizens freedom of religion, but also, in effect, freedom from religion, and the strict neutrality of government in religious matters is essential to these basic rights.

In the Mississippi and Michigan cases the law is straightforward; any government activities with a primarily religious purpose are unconstitutional. However well-intended, the Jackson school principal broke the law by allowing a student to pray over the school intercom. It was not an isolated incident. The prayers were allowed three mornings running. When the school superintendent complained, the principal showed no signs of remorse or intention to end the prayers and the superintendent had to fire him.

The Mississippi students, who live in a state where Southern Bap

tists are strong and form a politically significant bloc, drew considerable local support. During their march through the town they received an enthusiastic response from their signs asking motorists to 'Honk If You Pray'.

In the Grand Rapids case the judge, according to the law, could have overcome the ban on promoting one religion over another by ruling that the picture of Jesus could stay on the wall providing that all other leaders of all other religions were hung alongside. It could be argued that such action would have a secular purpose in informing students of the many and varied religions in the world and reminding them to be tolerant of the views and faiths of others. It would certainly have been promoting pluralism over separatism, a basic tenet of the Constitution.

At first reading it is hard to see how the Hassidic case, which appears a stunning piece of special-

interest legislation, could satisfy any of the litmus tests for whether government has violated the separation of Church and state. But the case has peculiarities.

In 1977 the Satmar Hassidim, who were living in Orange County, about 40 miles north of Manhattan, set up their own community and incorporated it as an administrative enclave separate from the local community and

with its own name, Kiryas Joel. They had their own private schools, but also used non-Hassidic teachers, paid for by the state, to teach handicapped pupils, or those with special needs.

In an unrelated decision in 1989, the Supreme Court found the widespread practice of government teachers working at religious schools to be unconstitutional, so the teachers were withdrawn from the Hassidic schools. But also that year the Hassidim of Orange County won the right, in a bill passed by the state legislature, to create its own public school district. This move allowed the non- Hassidic state teachers to work in the Hassidic community again, but this time at a public school, funded by the state, that was attended exclusively by some 200 Hassidic pupils.

The Hassidic group has striven mightily to give the school the trappings of a secular arm of government; the building does not even have a mezuzah on the door. But the question is not whether the staff wears religious clothing or the students yarmulkas, but whether a child is free not to learn one religion at a state school. Could a Christian child study there without discrimination? A Muslim teacher be on the staff? If the Constitution bars Christianity in public schools, how will it allow Judaism?