Can It Happen Here?

A tablet of the Ten Commandments, which is located on the grounds of the Texas Capitol Building in Austin, Texas, is seen in a Tuesday Oct. 12, 2004 photo. AP

This column was written by Richard Alba and Nancy Foner.
As political and religious leaders in this country challenge the longstanding separation between church and state, Americans need only look to Europe, with its anxieties about homegrown Muslim terrorists, for a wake-up call. The European experience teaches that there is no way for government to favor religion in general; it will favor specific expressions of religion, invariably Christian, and thereby push others aside. In the contemporary, globalized world, where the United States and Western Europe provide new homes to millions of immigrants from all over the world, breaching the wall between religions and government runs great risks.

Yet that appears to be the direction in which we are heading. This past June the Supreme Court ruled that the display of a biblical text, the Ten Commandments, on a government monument is not inherently unconstitutional. President Bush recently suggested that the theory of intelligent design should be taught in the nation's public schools on an equal basis with the theory of evolution, thereby supporting the demands of some of his most conservative Christian supporters. FEMA has just announced that taxpayer money will reimburse religious organizations for their aid to hurricane victims; the Bush Administration has enabled them to receive other direct government funding, which amounted to $2 billion in fiscal year 2004. In the background lurk a host of other specters, such as school vouchers, supported by Bush and the Republican Party, to provide state financial support for religious schools; and the vulnerability of Roe v. Wade, which many conservative Christians hope will be overturned by a reconstituted Supreme Court.

In Europe we can see the dangers of the interpenetration of church and state. As secular as Europeans are, their societies have deeply institutionalized religious identities, which are the result of historic settlements after centuries of religious conflict. In France, where laïcité, the exclusion of religion from the affairs of state, is the official ideology, the state in fact owns and maintains most Christian churches and allows them to be used for regular religious services. The same law that establishes state possession of religious edifices also prevents the state from building new ones, thus keeping the country's 4-5 million Muslims from enjoying the same privileges as Christians. Most French mosques are, as a consequence, ad hoc structures, not very different from storefront churches. Adding to the religious divide is that half the country's ten or so state-designated national holidays are Catholic in origin; no Muslim holiday has equivalent recognition.

In Britain and France the state provides financial support for religious schools as long as they teach the national secular curriculum. Inevitably, these arrangements, while seemingly fair to all religions, favor the most established ones. In Britain (where, incidentally, senior Anglican bishops sit in the House of Lords by right as part of the Anglican "establishment") the government funds nearly 7,000 Church of England and Catholic schools but only five Islamic schools in a nation of 1.6 million Muslims. In the Netherlands the majority of children go to state-supported religious schools, nearly all Protestant and Catholic, while the country's estimated 1 million Muslims have only about thirty-five of their own publicly funded primary schools.

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