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Racial bias vs. freedom of religion

Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C., makes no attempt to hide its racial discrimination. Although the fundamentalist Christian school accepts blacks and other minorities, it strictly forbids interracial dating.

Anyone married to a person of a different race need not apply to Bob Jones, and a student found dating interracially will be expelled, university rules state. The policy is based on the belief that ''It's in Scripture that the Lord has established racial barriers,'' explains university spokesman Bob Harrison.

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The school does not record the numbers of blacks or other minorities among its 6,300 students, who come from all 50 states and 35 foreign countries.

No one has ever been kicked out because of the rules, maintains Mr. Harrison, because ''they understand the policy when they come.'' But the rules have run afoul of the US Internal Revenue Service (IRS), which cut off Bob Jones University from tax exempt status.

The dispute, which will be argued before the US Supreme Court next January, is just one of a growing number of lawsuits over the exercise of religion. Inspired by resurging fundamentalist religions, as well as by unpopular cult groups, the cases will almost certainly make important new law regarding religious freedom.

For more than a decade, courts have concentrated on keeping religion out of government. The Supreme Court ruled prayers out of public schools and drew careful limits on public aid to parochial schools.

The new cases aim at keeping government out of religion.

In Bob Jones University v. United States, the school asserts that the government is treading on a religious tenet to enforce a public policy (racial equality). It is a clear clash between the right of religious exercise, as guaranteed by the First Amendment to the US Constitution, and the power of the government to pursue its objectives.

''The government is moving ever more intensively at the federal and state levels to regulate in First Amendment areas, especially in the area of religion, '' says William B. Ball, a Harrisburg, Pa., lawyer who is one of the leading litigators in religious liberty issues. He argued the bellwether case Wisconsin v. Yoder, in which the Supreme Court exempted Amish children from compulsory school attendance beyond the eighth grade so that they could conform to their religious traditions. That ruling has led the way for many of the cases now coming into the courts.

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The Bob Jones suit is ''critically important because the government thesis is that to enjoy tax exemption, a religion must conform to whatever may be said to be public policy,'' says Mr. Ball.

''We are very clear that it is not subterfuge,'' he says of the university racial policy. ''This is a sincere and established religious belief.''

Like most fundamentalist schools, Bob Jones takes no federal grants, and losing tax exempt status could be a serious blow. University President Bob Jones III, grandson of the Baptist minister who founded the university, predicts that the school would have to pay millions of dollars in back taxes if it loses. Perhaps equally damaging, donors could not take tax deductions for their gifts.

Linked with the Bob Jones case is a similar dispute between Goldsboro Christian Schools Inc. of North Carolina and the IRS. ''Based on its perception of God's will, the school has maintained a racially discriminatory admissions policy since its founding,'' states a document filed in the Supreme Court. The IRS has ruled that the whites-only rule bars the school from tax exemption.

The US Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has backed the IRS in both cases.

Lawyers for the US government maintain that the IRS acted well within the mandate of Congress in enforcing antidiscrimination rules. Moreover, they point to widespread resistance from church-related schools, including 29 private academies in Mississippi. Of those, 12 are defending their racial policies on First Amendment grounds.

With the current national growth of Christian schools, the high court's ruling in these two cases will be felt widely. However, for several religious groups, the issues go even further than schools.

The Mormon Church, the Mennonite Church, the Amish, and the Center for Law and Religious Freedom, among others, have urged the Supreme Court justices to rule against the IRS. The groups foresee Uncle Sam stepping into churches and demanding that they conform to a laundry list of federal policies, especially in the area of sex discrimination.

''Discrimination against women on the basis of sincere religious belief exists in many churches in the National Association of Evangelicals' constituency,'' says a brief filed by that association.

According to constitutional law professor A. E. Dick Howard of the University of Virginia, the Supreme Court will be moving into ''largely unchartered territory'' as it takes up cases on free exercise of religion. Leo Pfeffer, professor at Long Island University, predicts that religious expression will occupy center stage in constitutional law in coming years.

Judges in lower courts now are confronting an Arkansas law ordering schools to give equal time to Biblical ''creationism'' when they teach evolution. In New York, a federal court of appeals is considering whether the Unification Church of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon can have tax exemption for its printing facility.

The Supreme Court this term will be ruling on a bumper crop of religious cases. They include:

* A dispute over a University of Missouri rule forbidding all religious groups from holding worship services on campus. The school, citing the need to keep church and state separate, allows the study of religion but bans its actual practice on school grounds. A nondenominational Christian group is challenging that ban in the case and is awaiting a decision.

* An Amish carpenter's challenge of a federal requirement that he pay social security taxes for his employees, who are also Amish. In USA v. Edwin D. Lee, which was argued earlier this month, Mr. Lee holds that providing for the elderly is a central requirement of his church. Paying into a government program conflicts with that responsibility, according to his attorney, who notes that the Amish do not collect social security benefits.

* The Unification Church is fighting a Minnesota law that requires it to register with the state before soliciting in public and to file financial records with the state. The law, which exempts most churches from such requirements, is aimed at groups such as the ''Moonies,'' who receive most of their contributions from outsiders.

* In Grace Bretheren Church v. California, the court is asked to decide whether an independently incorporated religious school can enjoy the same tax exemptions as a church. The justices last term exempted church-owned schools from paying unemployment insurance taxes for employees.

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