In the '50s, Arkansas state officials sought ways to oppress black schoolchildren without being caught breaking the law. Today, they look for ways to ravage religious freedom without being caught breaking the law. The option of simply doing what's right seems not to have crossed their minds in either instance.
Representatives of the state Department of Human Services argued Monday before the state Board of Education on behalf of proposed DHS rules that would excuse the state's giving public money to church schools. Some members of the board, to their credit, seemed not to be buying.
DHS should never have given taxpayers' money to schools espousing religious beliefs to which many of the taxpayers do not subscribe. The U.S. Constitution forbids the merger of church and state. But DHS subsidized church schools and got by with it until a civil liberties group threatened litigation. A simple "We're sorry, we won't do it again," would have been an appropriate response. Instead, DHS chose not to go straight but to go sneakier. The agency now has drafted rules it hopes will permit the expenditure of public funds on sectarian schools, but in such a devious way that the procedure might somehow survive a court challenge. The Board of Education, apparently not the co-conspirator that DHS hoped for, is inviting public comment on the rules. People who believe in freedom of religion should make themselves heard. The other side will certainly be heard. DHS and a couple of state legislators who operate public/church schools will see to that.
In Arkansas, most of the church schools getting public money are fundamentalist Protestant. Elsewhere, the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church has been the strongest opponent of the First Amendment. Prominent Baptist Mike Huckabee, a former governor turned Fox News commentator, was preaching to the choir, again, when he told a group of conservative activists:
"Thanks to President Obama, we are all Catholics now. Growing up a Baptist in the South, I never thought I'd see the day when I would stand in front of several thousand people and say 'We're all Catholics.' "
This ecumenical outburst was prompted mainly by the anti-abortion control movement but the words apply as well to church schools, another issue on which Baptist preachers and Catholic priests have united, at least until one of them gains sufficient advantage to close the other's schools. If this is religious tolerance, it's a sad sort.
Baptists used to champion the separation of church and state. Roger Williams never thought the day would come when Baptist preachers would speak against it.