Finding the line between church and state

Comment

September 12, 1999|By Norris West

NOT EVERY relationship between a church and a government violates the Constitution. Government and faith institutions can join forces to deal with common concerns.

It is when government goes too far that Thomas Jefferson's wall of separation comes into play.

Where to draw the line, or erect the wall, was the question recently for the Anne Arundel County Council when it decided whether to cut funds for a church day-care center in Lothian.

County Executive Janet S. Owens asked the council to approve an application by the Mount Zion United Methodist Church of Lothian for a $26,500 grant to furnish a proposed day-care center.

Ms. Owens argued, quite curiously, that the money should not be viewed as public funds because it was generated by impact fees charged to a local landfill. Her other argument was more reasonable: the money would not pay for religious instruction.

Council members wanted no part of this proposal. They defeated the measure 5-1, with Pasadena Democrat A. Shirley Murphy the lone supporter.

Even though its grant application died, the church does plan to proceed and open the day-care center this week. Was the County Council's decision the right one? I think so.

Singing on a bus

Separation of church and state is a reason for government to be careful about supporting a religious program, even one that benefits a community. This restraint may not prevent an Mass Transit Administration bus driver from singing gospel songs while carrying passengers through Baltimore, but it sets clear limits on which religious programs can receive public support.

The Supreme Court's three-pronged test of 1971 offers guidance: The institution's activity must have a secular purpose. The activity must neither advance nor hinder religion. And it must not create excessive governmental entanglement with religion.

We don't know how the Lothian church intended to run its day-care program. If it planned to start the day with a Christian prayer and Bible reading, that would be a problem.

I have seen a government-funded center operate at a church without a problem.

When I was a teen-ager, my mother was a teacher's aide at a government-funded day-care center.

She worked in the Get Set program, which was similar to Head Start. The program was run in the basement of a large church, but the children did not come into contact with the religious symbols upstairs.

Saying `grace'

Children said grace before eating, but as I recall, they blessed their meals in whatever fashion they chose.

My mother was a deeply religious woman and, given free rein, would have been glad to lead a Bible study for the 3- and 4-year-olds. But that would not have sat well with the center's Muslim parents, who wanted child care, not religious dogma.

That day-care center seemed to respect the wall.

Baptist church aid

The question arises not infrequently: Earlier this year, the Maryland General Assembly approved $300,000 for a community center at the First Baptist Church of Guilford in Howard County. Legislators said the church's plans to provide treatment for substance abusers and work with youths were important secular purposes that may have veered close to, but didn't violate church-state separation.

In fact, 19 religion-affiliated groups in Maryland have received $7.5 million in state aid for building projects since 1993. None of the facilities built with public money are used for religious worship or instruction, which the state would prohibit.

Cleveland's voucher ruling

Nationally, debate rages about whether governments should issue vouchers that allow public school students to attend parochial and other religious schools. They shouldn't. A federal judge in Cleveland last month halted a 4-year-old voucher program there, saying the participating schools are overwhelmingly sectarian, so the program's primary effect was to advance religion.

Regarding the Lothian day-care center, Ms. Owens says she didn't forsee such a conflict prohibiting use of the -- unquestionably -- public money.

The Anne Arundel County Council, which could not predict how the Lothian church's day-care center would be run, were clearly worried about violating the Constitution, especially after county lawyers advised against the proposal.

The council made the right decision if it believed the church would have flunked the three-pronged test. Their vote in this instance, however, should not preclude them from considering public grants in the future to religious programs that have figured out how to help communities while keeping the church-state wall intact.

Norris P. West is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County. His e-mail address is norris.west@baltsun.com.

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