Shekels and Shackles: when religious schools yield to temptation.
In order to qualify for a tax-paid teacher, the school had to provide a classroom free of sectarian symbols. Publicly funded classes could only take place in a religiously neutral setting. At Our Lady of the Americas, that meant removing the crucifix, the central emblem of the Catholic faith.
"The pastor and their local school board, which represented the parents, were somewhat aghast at the thought of taking the crucifix down in one of their classrooms," recalled John Schmiedeler, superintendent of schools for the Catholic diocese.
Schmiedeler decided the issue was important enough to take to the bishop. The issue was discussed, and the church officials yielded to temptation. The crucifix came down and the publicly supported teacher came in.
This vignette vividly demonstrates some of the church-state concerns at the heart of Agostini v. Felton, a legal dispute now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Under "Chapter One" of the Elementary and Secondary School Act, the federal government provides remedial education assistance to disadvantaged students around the country. Thanks to lobbying by the Roman Catholic hierarchy, students enrolled at parochial schools are eligible for the aid alongside their public school counterparts.
There's just one catch: the constitutional separation of church and state. How can the government provide services to children at private religious schools without violating the terms of the First Amendment?
That question has been the subject of a host of lawsuits over the years. The litigation culminated in 1985 in a Supreme Court decision.
In the Aguilar v. Felton ruling, Justice William Brennan and four colleagues held that Chapter One teachers may not be sent into parochial schools to offer instruction. Such a set-up, Brennan insisted, "inevitably results in the excessive entanglement of church and state." The arrangement may be well-intentioned, the justice said, but it is "constitutionally flawed."
Then-Secretary of Education William Bennett and other parochial school advocates were outraged by the decision, calling it hostile to religion. But the decision was anything but that.
Brennan, a devout Roman Catholic, carefully explained that "governmental intrusion into sacred matters" harms both adherents of the recipient religious institution as well as those who must foot the bill. Quoting from previous court rulings, he argued, "IT]he First Amendment rests on the premise that both religion and government can best work to achieve their lofty aims if each is left free from the other within its respective sphere."
Parochial school officials, Brennan said, cannot accomplish their religious mission if public education authorities are roaming the halls making decisions about sensitive matters of faith. Chapter One teachers would have to be closely supervised by the public school district to ensure that they did not engage in religious indoctrination. He noted also that government agents would even address such questions as what constitutes a religious symbol in a Chapter One classroom.
Observed Brennan, "In short, the religious school, which has as a primary purpose the advancement and preservation of a particular religion must endure the ongoing presence of state personnel whose primary purpose is to monitor teachers and students in an attempt to guard against the infiltration of religious thought."
Citing court precedent, the justice concluded, "[T]he picture of state inspectors prowling the halls of parochial schools and auditing classroom instruction surely raised more than an imagined specter of governmental `secularization of a creed.'"
Those same concerns exist today. Parochial and other private sectarian schools include religious worship and indoctrination throughout the school day, whenever and wherever they believe those practices are appropriate.
The Rev. Richard J. Malone, secretary for education of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, wrote recently, "In the Catholic school, the learning of religious truth and values is an integral part of the total school program, not one more subject along with the rest."
To the extent that publicly paid remedial education teachers come into the parochial school, however, that central religious mission must recede. Taxes are collected in United States from taxpayers of many faiths and none. No American wants to be forced to support religious schools and religious instruction.
The U.S. Catholic Conference and an array of fundamentalist groups that support private religious education have lined up at the Supreme Court to argue for restoration of the publicly funded Chapter One classes within their schools. Their quest is deeply misguided and immensely shortsighted -- if they want to continue to preach their religious viewpoint in their schools.
Members of the Supreme Court should weigh these factors carefully as they ponder the Agostini case now before them. Church leaders at Our Lady of the Americas took down the crucifix once; the justices should not tempt them to do so again.