School Doors Crack Open to Religion House Vote to Allow Ten Commandments in Public Schools Stirs

Article excerpt

In public schools, organized prayer is prohibited. But how about reading verses from the Bible? Or pausing every morning for a collective "moment of silence"? Or posting the Ten Commandments in school hallways?

For most of this century, America's public schools have been the major battleground between those who want children in the classroom to be taught a religion-based moral code and those who insist that the US Constitution prohibits any such mingling of church and state.

To the dismay of people who believe this moral grounding should be part of public education, church-state separationists have held sway for decades - winning through the courts a ban on school prayer, readings from the Bible, and, in some cases, a "moment of silence." But now, several forces are blurring that distinct line between affairs of church and state - with schools again at the heart of the debate. These include broad societal shifts, such as post-Littleton concerns that a moral vacuum exists among youths, as well as specific court rulings, such as one allowing taxpayer dollars to be spent on parochial-school tuition. "There haven't been any dynamite attacks, but there's been significant erosion," says Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AUSCS), based in Washington. Another indication of that "erosion" came last week, when the US House voted 248 to 180 to allow states to display the Ten Commandments in public schools. Few civil libertarians expect the measure to become law, and even if it did, they say the courts would probably strike it down. (In 1980, the US Supreme Court slapped down the right of a Kentucky school to display the Ten Commandments in its hallway.) But its supporters hail it as a "cultural response" to the teen violence evident this spring during the Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colo. "The Dow Jones may be about to hit 11000, but people are surrounded by a culture of death," says Randy Tate, senior vice president of the Christian Coalition in Washington. "They're looking for solutions, and faith and family are two of the answers." To Mr. Tate, the House vote was a political response to "growing public pressure to let churches and synagogues play a larger role in our society." In fact, recent decisions hint a greater willingness by the judiciary to give religion a more public forum. Cracks in church-state wall The US Supreme Court recently said Milwaukee parents can use publicly funded education vouchers to educate their children in parochial schools. An Alabama judge has been permitted to display the Ten Commandments in his courtroom and to administer prayers before each court session. Some states now allow "moment of silence" policies in public schools. …