2007-08-31 / Columnists

From the Editor's Desk

The Wall Between Church And State Is Crumbling
Commentary By Howard Schwach

In his support of a new publicly funded school that will focus on Arabic language and culture, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that the school would be no different than the many duallanguage programs that are already running and that focus on Chinese, French and Spanish.

Once again, our mayor is wrong on an education issue, something that is coming to define his tenure in office.

Spanish language, Spanish culture are not connected to any one religion, as heavily Catholic as that nation might be.

The French language is not connected to any particular religion and neither is the Chinese language.

Most languages taught in the schools are not connected to a particular culture that has grown out of a particular religion.

The same cannot be said for either Arabic or Hebrew, both of which are closely connected with one particular culture and, more germane to the question at hand, one particular religion.

Which brings us to two new schools, one in New York City and the other in Hollywood, Florida.

The New York City public school, called the Khalil Gibran International School, has been described by the mayor as a non-sectarian institution that emphasizes Arabic language and culture, but will not address the Muslim religion.

Sorry, Mr. Mayor, but that's just not possible because, in each case, the culture is completely Not for a minute, nor do I believe that those who proposed the either of the schools ever intended for them to stay away from the religious component, because the culture is so intertwined with the religion.

While there are others who would argue that it's possible to develop a curriculum that addresses the language and the culture without touching on the religion that is commingled with them, I do not. The Arabic school was to be run by an Arabic woman who approved of a t-shirt that proposed "Intifada NYC" and the Florida schools is to be run by a rabbi.

I was a curriculum designer for the Board of Education for twenty years, and I do not believe that it is possible to design a curriculum for either of those schools that meets the requirements of the Establishment Clause and the court decisions that define that clause.

In both the New York City and Florida cases, local education officials seem to be bending over backwards to make an effort to accommodate a growing religious community- the Muslim community in New York City and the Orthodox Jewish community in Florida. And, don't think that a similar school to study Jewish culture and language is far behind for this city. The plans are already in the work and it will be interesting to see the Department of Education's reaction to the plan.

And, in each case, those officials have been rightfully challenged by those who fear that the wall between the secular and the religious is crumbling, just as surely as some of our older infrastructure, such as our bridges are sure to crumble if they are not properly cared for.

It is fiction to believe that one can develop a curriculum that teaches either Hebrew of Arabic along with the cultures of those who speak the two languages without also addressing the two religions that drive those cultures.

That should be clear to even the most addled and clueless school official (unfortunately, many of them fit the bill).

Americans have been debating the place for religion in a secular, democratic nation right from the beginning.

Many of those who peopled the original 13 colonies did so because they were trying to escape religious persecution. They knew first hand what a government-sponsored religion meant to those who did not believe in that religion (or in any religion).

People were jailed, tortured, killed, expelled, all because of what they believed to be true.

The men who wrote and vetted the United States Constitution in 1787 knew the deal. Although the proceedings of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia were secret, notes and memoirs remain that tell us that the founders were all religious men who feared that religion would destroy their new nation.

That is why the First Amendment to that Constitution includes the "Establishment Clause."

You should all know it by heart, but given the way our schools teach social studies these days, you might never have heard of it.

The First Amendment reads: "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or of the right of people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Sounds simple to me. Congress can pass no laws (later extended to the states by the 14th Amendment) that either create or further one religion over another.

Of course, like everything else in life, it is not that simple, as our Supreme Court has found.

The court's litmus test on whether something falls within the Establishment Clause has evolved to become a question.

That question is: "Does the action endorse religion (or, a particular religion) or does it have a "secular purpose?"

In other words, is the action inherently religious?

There is no doubt, at least in my mind, that a Créche is a religious symbol as is the Torah scroll and the Star and Crescent. Those symbols have no meaning aside from their religious meaning.

How about a Christmas tree? AMenorah? A drawing of a mosque? A drawing of a Buddha?

Whether a symbol is religious or not might well be in the eye of the beholder, as many of our readers have tried to convince me that a Créche is no more a religious symbol than a Christmas tree.

What we have today as an outgrowth of generations of case law is that the government may not engage in or pay for conduct that is inherently religious, but may accommodate religion when the steps taken to do so are not inherently religious in themselves.

That explanation comes, by the way, from Noah Feldman, a law professor at Harvard University, not from me.

I do, however, like it and it explains why public money can be used for such things as transportation and secular textbooks for parochial schools.

Take that explanation and use it to look at the two new schools and you will see that they should clearly not be funded by the public.

How can you teach Arab culture without at least mentioning Islam? How can you teach the culture that has grown up around the Hebrew language without discussing Judaism?

Clearly, you can't and that puts the schools outside the pale, so to speak.

Both will use dual-language as a hook to teach religion-based culture and both will, in fact, teach religion or at least the idea that one religion is better than the others.

That cannot happen in a democratic society. The Constitution's Establishment Clause forbids it and the Supreme Court's test seems to forbid it as well.

I have nothing against people practicing whatever religion they want. What they should do as well, however, is to leave everybody else alone to practice whatever religion (or non-religion) they want without pressure to change.

Our public schools should not proselytize the young, and that is exactly what those two schools are going to do, notwithstanding what their officials or the mayor might say.

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