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Church-State Line Is Still Blurred After Rulings

Religion: Decisions on the Pledge of Allegiance and school vouchers continue a tradition of debate as old as the nation itself.


Two U.S. court opinions last week show why disagreements over the relationship between God and public life in America are so perennial--and so bedeviling.

First, a federal appeals court ruled that religion could not be part of a daily ritual of public school life: the Pledge of Allegiance. The next day, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that religious schools could receive public school dollars.

The deep disagreement over where the dividing line should lie between church and state was evident in the way so many people loved one ruling but hated the other. This tension, nearly as old as the republic itself, is apparent in myriad contradictions in government policies on religion. For example, public schools are not allowed to post the Ten Commandments, but the U.S. Supreme Court chambers display a representation of Moses with the tablets. Prayer is not allowed in public schools, but taxpayers foot the bill for chaplains to lead prayers in Congress and prisons.

This church-state tension springs, in part, from two conflicting desires: to uphold a bedrock principle of American life--separation of church and state--and the belief of most Americans in a transcendent force.

Many Americans who accept a wall between church and state also cherish what scholars call "civil religion." That is manifested in generic references to the divine in American currency, the national motto and presidential inaugural addresses, as well as in displays honoring Christmas and Hanukkah--and, more recently, Ramadan--on public property.

"A religious people want a transcendent dimension to the great moments of national life, and the civil religion is one vehicle for that," said Robert Benne, director of the Roanoke College Center for Religion and Society in Salem, Va.

Benne said civil religion sweeps in as a comforting force, particularly during times of crisis. On the night of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, for instance, more than 100 members of Congress stood on the steps of the Capitol to sing "God Bless America."

The Pledge of Allegiance, scholars say, is one prominent symbol of America's civil religion--one reason the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision striking it down provoked so much outrage from so many people.

"There is this pervasive sense that the nation is in trouble morally," said Derek Davis, who directs the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. "People are looking for ways to have a more moral citizenry, for opportunities for religion to surface in the public square."

Some experts also suggest that the long national trend toward "secular individualism" has run its course, creating a sense of fragmentation that has led many Americans to long for more community. Father Thomas Rausch, a theology professor at Loyola Marymount University, said the pledge decision amounted to "one person's view"--the atheist plaintiff's--"imposed on the common good."

"It's a clash of values, between an individualistic ethos versus a recognition of the importance of the common good," Rausch said. "American society ... has focused on 'What is my right?' even if it conflicts with a sense of community. But I do sense now that people think things are out of control."

The Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, executive director of the Washington-based Interfaith Alliance, sees less benign reasons for the growing assertion of religion in public life. He said many Christians who were once strong supporters of the separation of church and state have increasingly called for exceptions as religious diversity has grown in America.

Particularly since changes to federal immigration law in 1965, the nation's religious landscape has been reshaped by new waves of Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and other minority groups. Some conservative Christian leaders have denounced the growing diversity from the pulpit and called for a new reassertion of the nation's "Judeo-Christian heritage" in public life.

"Religious diversity has made very nervous people who in former days were stronger supporters of" church-state separation, said Gaddy, a Baptist minister in Louisiana. "I have a hunch that we have people who have been speaking out of both sides of their mouths."

The more prominent role of religion in public life was apparent in the last presidential election, when Republican candidate George W. Bush, Democratic candidate Al Gore and Gore's vice presidential running mate, Joseph Lieberman, all gave frequent public testimonials about the place of faith in their lives. President Bush subsequently launched a landmark--and hotly controversial--initiative to allow more faith-based organizations to receive public dollars to carry out welfare and other social-service programs.

The current resurgence of religion in the public square reflects that latest swing of a pendulum that has tipped back and forth for centuries.

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