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
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
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
court rulings, such as one allowing taxpayer dollars to be spent on
"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
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. …