Editorial: Church-state wall erodes
Glenburn and Palermo, a pair of small towns in Maine, would normally be of little concern to New Yorkers. But a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June may turn out to be very much worth this state’s attention.
The court’s conservative majority further chipped away at the wall of separation between church and state that the framers of the U.S. Constitution erected in the First Amendment. And some fear it could lead to more decisions requiring taxpayers to fund parochial schools.
Fewer than half of Maine’s districts have a high school, and the state has long opted to provide tuition assistance to students in those areas to attend state-approved private schools. The state, however, excludes religious schools, prompting a lawsuit on behalf of two families who wanted reimbursement to send their children to parochial schools.
The court majority ruled that if the state provides a benefit to private schools, it can’t withhold that benefit from some institutions just because they’re parochial. The decision cited an earlier case in which the court said Missouri could not exclude a church from a program to provide funds for playgrounds.
The ruling strikes a serious blow to the separation of church and state, and it may set the stage for more by this activist, reactionary court majority. New York doesn’t have a program like Maine’s — it wisely avoided even establishing tax credits for people to donate to private-school foundations, as former Gov. Andrew Cuomo once proposed. But it does fund charter schools, which are considered public schools but are privately operated, and some, including now-retired Justice Stephen Breyer, warn that the ruling could extend to religious charters. Unless New York wants to be forced down the road of having taxpayers fund parochial schools, it should study this decision thoroughly and ensure that its charter school program is immune to the court’s religious inclinations — or be prepared to end it. Public funds should not be going to religious education and indoctrination.
The court’s willingness to blur the line between church and state showed up in another ruling last month concerning school prayer. The court found that a football coach in Bremerton, WA, was within his rights to pray on the 50-yard line after games, another decision that cast aside decades of precedent when it came to prohibiting religious activities at public school events. The court majority argued that because the game was over, the coach was on his own time, so his actions were unofficial.
That tortured ruling ignores the fact that these prayer sessions turned into group events, and overlooked the enormous pressure members of a school team have to both express solidarity with their teammates and please the adult who decides how much time they get on the field, if any. It’s a decision that hews closely to the view among some conservatives that the church-state wall is a false construct in what they maintain is a fundamentally Christian nation.
The nation’s founders keenly understood history’s lessons about the perils of state endorsement of religion, and crafted the First Amendment’s religious protection broadly in order to stand the test of time. These two decisions, alarmingly, demonstrate the determination of a court majority that seems intent on eroding, if not dismantling, that wall, and how quickly the edifice could fall.
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