07/05 - Religion and Government

Are we seeing a fundamental change in the way the courts and the executive branch view long-standing laws and policies?

Rebroadcast of December 2004

This month’s “Louisiana Public Square” deals with the relationship between religion and government. It is a hot button topic, due partly to the recent presidential election, which generated headlines like this one in the Baton Rouge Advocate: “Moral values a top issue at the polls.” What are the moral values that are driving voters today? What is the place of religion in politics? Are we seeing a fundamental change in the way the courts and the executive branch view long-standing laws and policies? The program’s panel of experts consists of ministers representing a wide range of political views.

Panelists:

* Reverend Steve J. Crump, Senior Minister of the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge
* Reverend Gene Mills, Executive Director of the Louisiana Family Forum
* Sr. Judith Brun
* Reverend Charles Smith

Panel Hosts

* Beth Courtney, LPB President
* Charles Zewe, former CNN anchor and reporter

This episode is underwritten by Entergy.

Backgrounder

The first sixteen words in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution deal with the relationship between religion and government:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof....”

Some say these words put up a wall of separation between church and state. Others say there should be a line that is flexible, and can be moved as circumstances demand.

Debate over the relationship between religion and government is closely tied to hot button topics such as the involvement of the church in partisan politics, the question of prayer in public schools and the funding of church-related organizations with public monies.

Beginning in the middle of the 20th century, the courts generally tried to fortify the wall of separation. But in recent decisions, the pendulum seems to be moving in the other direction — with one exception. In the area of government speech on religious matters, such as school-sponsored prayer, the law has moved toward increased separation between religion and government.

One decision that will have far-reaching impact is the Cleveland voucher case, decided by the Supreme Court in 2002. For the first time, the law explicitly permits government to spend money for the payment of tuition at religious elementary and secondary schools, even if those schools offer faith-intensive academic programs. The Court’s decision places absolutely no restriction on the use of the tuition funds received by participating schools.

The decision bodes well for President Bush’s faith-based initiative programs, which are funneling billions of dollars a year in social service grants and housing assistance money to religious groups that provide secular services. But groups like the American Civil Liberties Union [ACLU] are concerned that there is a danger public funds will be used to support religion, something ACLU lawyers, and others, believe is counter to the first amendment of the US Constitution.

Louisiana has been the site of many cases testing the boundary between church and state:

* 1930: In Cochran v. Louisiana State Board of Education, the Supreme Court the first time allowed indirect aid to religious schools based on the "child benefit" theory.
* 1987: In Edwards v. Aguillard, the Supreme Court found that a state law served a particular religious purpose - it advanced a religious doctrine by providing that a certain subject, evolution, would never be taught unless a religious perspective of that subject [scientific creationism] was presented along with it.
* 2000: In Guy Mitchell, et al., Petitioners v. Mary L. Helms, et al. , the Supreme Court ruled 6 to 3 that taxpayer money may be used to buy computers and other materials for religious and other private schools. The central issue in Mitchell v. Helms and school vouchers is whether taxpayer money can be used by private or religious school students.
* 2001: In Doe v. School Board Of Ouachita Parish , 5th Circuit Court of Appeals declared that a Louisiana law which required local school boards and parishes to permit school authorities to allow students and teachers to observe a "brief time in silent meditation" at the beginning of each school day, violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment because it does not have a secular legislative purpose.
* 2002: In ACLU of Louisiana v. Foster , the United States District Court - Eastern District of Louisiana cited misuse of taxpayer dollars and blocked the state of Louisiana from funding religious activities in the Governor's Program on Abstinence. This case was later settled by the parties.

This listing is not comprehensive. The litigation surrounding the question of religion and government is vast, and reflects the great importance citizens place on this subject.

The political, legal and personal moral questions surrounding the separation of church and state show no signs of waning. And, like all serious discourse about the democratic process, this free and forceful debate is both a test of — and a testament to — the power of America’s great experiment in democracy.

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