June 12, 2001 | Commentary on Religion and Civil Society, Civil Society

Pushing the Envelope for Religious Pluralism

Yesterday the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that public elementary schools may open their doors to after-school religious activities, including those that involve young children. The ruling is a logical extension of the court's neutrality principle-that religious speech gets the same First Amendment protection, the same access to public facilities, as any other speech.

That's a fairness issue, and around it liberals and conservatives could find common ground. But the decision also advances a vision of religious pluralism that many may not be ready for.

In this case an evangelical Christian organization, the Good News Club, was denied use of school space for a Bible-based education program. School facilities were available to other groups, and children could only participate with the written permission of their parents. Under these circumstances, charges of state establishment of religion were rightly dismissed.

What seems to really bother opponents of the program is the fact that it uses prayer and the Bible as the brick and mortar of character education. In his dissent, Justice Stevens opposed this approach as "proselytizing religious speech." Had this view prevailed, the state would have been given the power to decide what constitutes permissible religious expression and what doesn't.

But James Madison, the mind behind the First Amendment, railed against this practice. "It degrades from the equal rank of Citizens," he said, "all those whose opinions in Religion do not bend to those of the Legislative authority."

The majority of the court agreed. They implicitly recognized that many faith communities cannot separate "character education" from religious instruction-and shouldn't be discriminated against as a result. That's a win for religious pluralism in America.

Nevertheless, those who cheer the ruling now, especially Christian conservatives, may not always be so sanguine.

Public schools have become hotbeds of cultural and religious diversity. In some districts, dozens of different faiths are represented. Even in the Bible Belt, it is not uncommon to see Islamic groups right alongside fundamentalist Christians. How will those who fought for the Good News Club feel in elementary schools in Mormon-rich Utah? What about a club in Texas classrooms based on the Mexican God Quetzacoatl?

Defending the free exercise of religion is easy when you happen to be the majority religion. It requires much greater depth of character when doing so would expand the reach of religious groups you find distasteful. Yet that is precisely what the Court has allowed.

Everyone says they are for religious liberty. But now might be a good time for religious leaders to dust off their teachings on patience, forbearance and charity.

 Joseph Loconte is the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Joseph Loconte William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society

Originally aired on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" (06/12/01)