As some of you know, I used to do a daily radio program with conservative icon Pat Buchanan for NBC. We had, as you might guess, plenty of arguments. Pat is now the co-host (along with Bill Press) of an MSNBC television talk show every afternoon, on which I recently appeared as a guest.
Pat was really, truly, distressed at the position I took in regard to the topic under discussion: a Pennsylvania state law that bars teachers from wearing religious garb or symbols while teaching. Specifically, an evangelical Christian teacher's aide had been suspended for refusing to place a cross under her clothing and insisting that she had a right to display it openly to her elementary school students.
Americans United has supported these laws for the past 50 years because they remind school officials of the need to preserve genuine neutrality in the public school classroom. Courts have upheld the right of states to pass such statutes, and indeed the federal appeals court that covers Pennsylvania has previously upheld this law against a challenge by a Muslim woman who wanted to wear religious clothing each day.
This does have the result of requiring some people to forego teaching as a vocation if the public schools cannot accommodate their wish to indicate their religious orientation by what they wear. The teacher's aide in this new case, Brenda Nichol, struck me as having a clear evangelical purpose behind her actions. She is now being defended by Jay Sekulow, TV preacher Pat Robertson's top legal eagle at the American Center for Law and Justice.
Ms. Nichol seems to be trying to use her position in a public school to usurp the authority of parents to decide matters like the religious training (if any) of their children. As I pointed out on Fox News Channel's "O'Reilly Factor," if a cross is acceptable, next year a teacher would undoubtedly be able to retain Sekulow's help to wear a button that says: "Jesus is the Only Way." (By the way, were an atheist teacher to wear a t-shirt saying "God Is Not Real" I suspect Jay would be AWOL from court.) Public schools are not supposed to be either mission fields or battle zones over religious truth.
Sekulow is also representing a Washington state man who was denied a state grant because he wanted to study to become a minister at an Assemblies of God college. Washington, along with several other states, specifically prohibits tax support to students preparing for the ministry.
Quite sensibly, these states have decided that since they are not permitted to pay the salaries of priests, imams, pastors or rabbis, it is not acceptable to pay for their training either. Again, this is not the way the Religious Right sees it. They argue this is unfair discrimination demonstrating an anti-religious bias. Moreover, they claim that the First Amendment's guarantee of the "free exercise of religion" requires the state to support ministerial students.
This argument is not only constitutionally bizarre, it even runs counter to my own life experience with financial need and seminary training. When I attended the Boston University School of Theology, I got a substantial scholarship from the United Methodist Church (even though I wasn't even a Methodist), and I worked for the rest of the money needed for tuition and living expenses in my one-room apartment. It never crossed my mind that the state of Massachusetts or the federal government somehow was "discriminating" against me because I had chosen to be a preacher and they didn't subsidize that schooling.
As with the religious clothing case, though, it is possible that some people think the result of denying the funds seems harsh. Again, though, beyond the immediate facts of the case lies the ultimate goal of the Religious Right's ideological drive: full funding of religion in general throughout the states and through the federal government.
Ironically, if Sekulow and company successfully make the case that payment for clergy training is required, it is only one further step to claiming that any parent who has a "religious" preference for private school can demand that the state pick up the tab for education at St. Ann's parochial school or the John the Redeemer Academy. Without state payments, they will argue, the child cannot experience the "free exercise of religion." Maybe the Right thinks that "free" exercise is all about not having to pay for it.
If there is no recognized constitutional difference between religion and all other endeavors, then a state could pay tuition for an auto mechanic school and a theology school but would have the same right to regulate both. That aspect would probably not appeal to Sekulow, but I'm sure he would find some new "right" to get the money and still forego the regulation.
I'll admit these are harder cases than many in which we are involved, but we must never lose sight of the goal of those who bring these suits. They use such cases as vehicles for establishing sweeping principles that get them closer and closer to their dream of a theocracy in America.
Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.