Magazine article The Christian Century

Religionists Divided over Church-State Case

Magazine article The Christian Century

Religionists Divided over Church-State Case

Article excerpt

When the U.S. Supreme Court hears oral arguments on the major church-state ease of the term, it will find religious groups in the U.S. pulling in opposite directions. Those groups are divided not only on the narrow issues of the case at hand but also on the potentially broader issues the court could address, including the method the courts and government have used for the past two decades to ascertain whether laws and actions meet the standards of church-state separation.

The immediate case before the nine justices concerns the constitutionality of a law passed by the New York state legislature creating a special public school district for a sect of Hasidle Jews in the village of Kiryas Joel, New York. The district was established to allow the Jewish group to receive aid provided by the state for children with special education needs-- without having to send the children to a public school. But the New York Court of Appeals ruled that creation of the school district violated the constitutional separation of church and state.

Since the Supreme Court accepted the ease on appeal, religious groups, in a host of friend-of-the-court briefs, have weighed in on one side or the other. In some cases they have asked the justices to scrap the so-called Lemon test, a three-part standard adopted in a 1971 that sets forth standards for determining whether laws violate church-state separation by favoring one religion over another. The Lemon test requires governmental actions to have a secular purpose, to neither advance nor inhibit religion and to avoid excessive entanglement between religion and government. But other groups are urging the justices to keep the standard intact or simply to fine-tune it.

Among the groups backing the Satmar Hasidim sect of Kiryas Joel are Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox Jewish organization; the Knights of Columbus, a Roman Catholic la.y organization; the Southern Baptist Convention's Christian Life Commission; the National Association of Evangelieals; the Southern Center for Law and Ethics; the Family Research Council; and evangelical broadcaster Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice.

on the other side, opposing the special school district, are the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the American Jewish Congress, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, the National Council of Churches, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, People for the American Way and the American Civil Liberties Union. …

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