Remedial Civics

Did Bennett And Paige Skip Diversity Class?

Imagine my surprise! After returning from a Palm Sunday communion service in Washing\xacton, I opened my Washington Post to find that ex-Secre\xactary of Educa\xaction William Bennett had excoriated me in an op-ed as one of the leaders of "crusading secularism." He was bemoaning my criticism of current Education Secretary Rod Paige earlier in the week for what I viewed as Paige\'s offensive comments about values other than those derived from Christianity and the need to interject religion into public schools.

Paige said that "all things being equal," he would prefer to have a child in a school with a strong appreciation for the "kind of values that I think are associated with the Christian communities. " He complained that in public schools "there are so many different kids from different kinds of experiences that it\'s very hard to get consensus around some core values." Asked by the interviewer why there\'s such "animosity towards religion and God" in the public schools, he replied, "It\'s a real puzzle to me."

Bennett didn\'t like my criticism of Paige\'s astonishingly misguided remarks and suggested I resign for being "ridiculous." I checked the official Americans United membership records and couldn\'t find him listed as a supporter; for that, and several hundred other reasons, I will decline to seek alternative employment. By the way, every "clarification" of Paige\'s comments and the release of a purported transcript of the Paige interview with Baptist Press only made matters worse.

Actually one of the greatest pleasures of my ten-year-plus tenure here is interacting with members and supporters from a vast array of religious and philosophical backgrounds. You don\'t have to be a "secularist," crusading or otherwise, to be shocked when the top education official for the United States seems to be troubled by the diversity of America\'s public schools as he pines for Christian values instead of "animosity" toward religion in schools.

In the last few weeks I\'ve spoken to gatherings in California, Missouri and here in Washington, D.C., that reflect that diversity. I spoke to a Saturday evening plenary session of Protestant Justice Action\'s conference in St. Louis about the ongoing "culture war" in America between those who believe moral choice is part of religious freedom and those who believe that if government just picked the right religious values and embedded them as the secular law, everything would be fine.

A few days later I spoke to the Consultation on Conscience for the Religious Action Center of Reform Juda\xacism, which included about 200 rabbis and 300 other Jewish lay leaders. I couldn\'t help but start that speech by offering a prize to the person who could best find a punchline for a joke that begins, "A Protestant minister and 200 rabbis meet in a congressional caucus room ...."

Two days later, it was a short trek to a seminar sponsored by United Methodist Women for Kansas pastors and congregants who came by bus to learn about some of the hot-button issues in Wash\xacington. I did a brief history of the First Amendment and interpretations of the free speech and free exercise clauses when it came to protecting religion. We had a very thoughtful discussion of the inexcusable conduct of the Rev. Fred Phelps of Topeka, Kan., who tries to annoy parishioners who attend churches he considers too open to gay people and holds crude and cruel protests at the funerals of persons who die of AIDS.

It was then on to California for presentations to a conference for many of the nation\'s leading education journalists (who had a lot to write about the next week when the Paige comments broke) and the annual national convention of school board attorneys.

I also spoke to our Americans United chapter in Sacramento. After that event, I had the chance to chat with many in the audience, ranging from Michael Newdow, the man who brought the suit against "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, to the wife of the author of a well-known Seventh-day Adventist book on Sunday closing laws. I don\'t know if there are any topics aside from religious freedom that this eclectic audience would agree about, but that idea has been powerful enough to bring folks like them together for over 50 years as Americans United members.

My little spring speak-a-thon culminated at a national conference of the Council for Secular Humanism. (Don\'t tell Bill Bennett; it will only upset him more.) I was honored to receive the James Madison Award for my "defense of the First Amendment and religious liberty" after giving the only CSH luncheon address anybody could recall being delivered by a member of the clergy.

With all these groups, the essential message is the same (I\'ll admit only to changing the jokes): if we are not constantly vigilant we could lose the greatest intellectual accomplishment of the United States, separation of church and state. The day that it is not possible to be a non-believer and still be viewed as a first-class citizen is the same day that you will risk marginalization as a Jew, a Methodist or an Adventist. It is a seamless principle. If we lose it for one it is lost for all. It is -- please take this literally or figuratively -- a question of retaining or losing America \'s soul.

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.