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Resisting attacks along the church-state front

The united States is in no danger of lapsing into the religious authoritarianism of Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran. Yet the blending of church and state which has gone to extremes in Iran remains a warning against the persisent efforts to whittle away at the wall between church and state in America. And every indication of resistance to such efforts merits recognition.

Of concern this year is the lobbying to enlist the new Department of Education in the attempt to legislate tuition tax credits for parents of children in private schools, including the religiously affiliated schools which constitute the great majority of them. And there has been new political assault on the United States Supreme Court's admirable record of upholding the First Amendment's prohibition against establishing religion.

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Meanwhile, on the state and local level, the nibbling at constitutional safeguards continues. It often appears to be for the best motives -- bringing a spiritual element into public education through school prayers, for example, or construing tax credits or other subsidy as aid for individual students and parents rather than for the religious schools they support. Yet the best protection for free exercise of religion lies in keeping government at every level out of it.

This point has evidently been seen by the public in California, where three initiative campaigns for state funding of parochial and private schools failed to get the signature to go on the ballot in June. And just this month the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court struck down a new state school prayer law that tried to avoid constitutional problems by having student volunteers conduct the prayers and allowing students to leave the room if they did not want to participate. The court ruled that the "voluntary" aspect could not save the law from unconstitutionality.

Indeed, for truly voluntary prayer, no law needs to be passed to call for volunteers. Such prayer is between the individual and God; this is the fundamental religious relationship which must be kept free at every stage where the separation of church and state is threatened.


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