Hang on to your hat. As the year 2000 opens, the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to decide two disputes that could have an extraordinary impact on the religious freedom rights of all Americans.
In one case, the justices will render a verdict on the role of prayer at public schools. In the other, they will hand down a ruling on tax aid to religious schools.
It's hard to overestimate the potential impact of these two actions. When and how you and your children pray is at stake. So is your right to contribute only to the religious institutions of your choice.
In the first case, the high court is looking at a Texas conflict over school- sanctioned invocations at high school football games. Two families have filed suit, charging that coercive devotions during school functions violate the separation of church and state.
While the conflict may seem narrowly focused at first glance, core First Amendment values are implicated. Since 1962, the Supreme Court has consistently ruled that public schools may not try to force religious worship or instruction on students. Whether the issue has been prayer, Bible reading, religious instruction in science class or posting of the Ten Commandments, the justices have said no to government-enforced piety.
Critics of the high court's firm policy have desperately sought ways to undermine it. The latest ruse is a central point of debate in the Texas case. In Santa Fe v. Doe, Religious Right strategists argue that prayers over the public address system before school athletic events are purely student-led, with public school administrators playing no significant role. Students, they say, are only exercising their free speech rights.
This is a clever strategy, but it should fool no one. Football games, like other aspects of the public school program, should welcome students of all religious backgrounds (and none). Children and their families and friends should never be turned into a captive audience -- make that congregation -- for religious worship.
To make matters worse, the student who led the prayers in Texas was chosen by a vote of her classmates. This process virtually ensures that the invocations will reflect the predominant faith in the community.
This, of course, runs completely counter to America's heritage of religious freedom. If there is one thing the framers of the Constitution sought to avoid, it's majority rule on matters of religion. They sought instead to guarantee individual freedom of conscience.
The second case before the Supreme Court is just as important. In a lawsuit from Louisiana, two taxpayers are challenging the use of federal funds to pay for equipment and library books for parochial schools.
Like school prayer, tax aid for religious schools is an issue the justices have wrestled with for years. In 1947, for example, the court quoting Thomas Jefferson held that the First Amendment was intended to erect a "wall of separation between church and state." But a narrow majority of justices nonetheless allowed the state of New Jersey to pay for transportation of students to Catholic schools.
Since then, the court has allowed some forms of indirect tax aid to churches and church schools, but has tried to draw the line at any public assistance that could be used for promoting religion itself.
If that line holds, the Louisiana case is an easy one to decide. Parochial schools' top priority is teaching religion. Computers, slide projectors and library books can readily be used by parochial school faculty to inculcate doctrine. Anyone with a computer knows how easy it is to access the thousands of religious sites on the World Wide Web. Thus tax dollars should not be used to fund such aid.
Church school advocates, however, are aggressively seeking court approval for a new policy that would allow government to aid both public and nonpublic schools regardless of the religious character of the latter. According to this theory, as long as a tax-funded program is general and distributes its assistance broadly, churches and church-based ministries can benefit.
If the justices buy into this way of thinking, American taxpayers will soon find themselves paying for more and more of the costs of private sectarian schools.
Consider the implications. Church school administrators can refuse to hire you as a teacher because you don't share their religious values. They can even refuse to enroll your child because your family is the "wrong" religion. Yet, under the scheme proposed to the Supreme Court in Mitchell v. Helms, you could still find yourself footing the bill for expenses at that school.
Americans United and a host of civil liberties and educational groups have asked the justices to reaffirm Jefferson's protective wall of separation between government and religion. We can only hope a solid court majority sees the wisdom in that approach.
As America moves into a new millennium, our nation is certain to become more religiously diverse, not less. This is no time to scrap time-tested policies that have given us more religious freedom than any people in world history.