It’s disturbing to learn that public schools persist in promoting religion despite landmark decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1962 and 1963. The latest reminder comes from Jefferson, S.C., where the American Civil Liberties Union has sued the Chesterfield County school district for the continuing promotion of religion in several of its schools (“Battling Anew Over the Place of Religion in Public Schools,” The New York Times, Dec. 28). Specifically, a preacher at a school assembly was permitted to describe how Jesus Christ saved him from drugs. But as the Times reported, similar violations of the separation of church and state have also taken place in Pensacola, Fla. and Sumner County, Tenn.
Although the examples cited are blatant, even school policies that are carefully designed to be impartial pose a hidden threat. Take the situation in New York City, home of the nation’s largest school district. According to The New York Times, at least 60 schools have doubled as “rent-free houses of worship” in their off hours (“Separation of Church and School,” Jun. 11). The churches involved pay the custodians’ fee to use the school not only on Sunday mornings and evenings, but also on some Wednesday and Friday nights. The practice arose after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2001 in Good News Club v. Milford Central School that school districts can allow religious groups to use their facilities during non-instructional hours as long as other community groups are also allowed to do so.
I realize that what is taking place in New York City is not the same as what is taking place in Jefferson, but both situations are a reminder that eternal vigilance is necessary to prevent the erosion of the wall between church and school. The issue has arisen most recently in connection with the start of religious charter schools. Consider the example of the Ben Gamla Charter School, which was founded in 2007 in Hollywood, Fla. by Jewish parents. Despite its teaching of Hebrew, its serving of kosher food and its Orthodox rabbi principal, defenders argue that there is no violation of government establishment of religion because the school’s emphasis is on culture.
It will be interesting to see if the claim prevails in the face of what are sure to be legal challenges. I say that because the number of religious charter schools continues to grow rapidly. Already, Ben Gamla’s network of charter schools in South Florida enrolls about 1,600 students, with more planned. Let’s not forget that once a legal precedent is established, it serves as a wedge to weaken the wall between church and state.
That’s where the existence of the Blaine amendments will undoubtedly come into play. Although James Blaine, speaker of the House of Representatives, failed in his attempt in 1875 to gain the necessary two-thirds majority in the Senate to amend the U.S. Constitution stipulating that no public money shall go to schools “under the control of any religious sect,” 37 states incorporated similar language in their constitutions. State courts have weakened the amendments over the years, but Blaine-like amendments remain in the constitutions of about 17 states, creating an obstacle to unfettered expansion of religious charter schools.
The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.