Church and State

Article excerpt

Uninformed Opinion

A recent CNN-Gallup-USA Today poll shows just how uninformed and uncritical a great many Americans are on important church-state issues. The poll found that respondents:

* favor displaying the Ten Commandments in public schools--74 percent to 24 percent

* favor allowing official prayers at school graduations--83 percent to 17 percent

* would allow use of the Bible in literature, history, and other classes--71 percent to 28 percent

* would permit daily prayer in the classroom--70 percent to 28 percent

* would approve teaching creationism along with evolution in public schools--68 percent to 29 percent

* would oppose teaching creationism instead of evolution--55 percent to 40 percent.

Let's look at these issues.

Displays of the Ten Commandments in public areas were ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1981 in Stone v. Graham, but beyond that there is no agreement among various faiths as to the wording or even the enumeration of the commandments. In any event, the folks who produced the commandments don't call them that but, rather, "utterances." Is government or a school board then to decide which is to be the official version? When asked his opinion about a Ten-Commandments-in-the-school measure passed by the U.S. House of Representatives this past June, born-again Texas governor and Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush said he thought the "standard" version would be okay.

Incidentally, how many churches display the Ten Commandments prominently or otherwise? Very few, I should think. But posting them there or in churchyards where they would be visible to passersby would be noncontroversial--and if they reduced crime and violence, which I very much doubt, then hooray!

As for official graduation prayers, just whose might they be? The school board's? Prayers written by committees? The Supreme Court has already slammed the door on that one.

Using the Bible in literature and history classes is okay in theory but presents many problems in practice, such as how the Bible is used. The likelihood that it would be used in a constitutional manner is surely less than 50 percent.

A majority may favor permitting prayer in public schools, but individual voluntary classroom prayer has never been held illegal--only government-sponsored or -led prayer. What is more, another Gallup poll about a year ago found that if respondents had a choice they would prefer a moment of silence rather than prayer in the classroom.

The Supreme Court has also come down against teaching creationism in public schools along with evolution. Evolution is science; creationism is but one of many competing nonscientific religious explanations of how and when the universe and living things developed. There is controversy over evolution in the United States because of the persisting strength of fundamentalism and the related weakness of science teaching in our schools. …