Children on Christian or Secular swings?

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Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Pauley is a grabbing lawsuit name for those of us who do “sightings” of religion in American public life. It features in a story in The Kansas City Star. The suit has to do with whether children playing on swings and merry-go-rounds on the playground of a Christian day school in Columbia, Missouri, are engaging in religion-related activities, which are protected by law but in this case could present a problem for the American tradition(s) of church-and-state relations. The lookers-on who watch for tough cases on the U.S. Supreme Court’s docket predict that this parochial issue, and the Court’s decision about it, will have an enduring influence on how government relates to religion.

These little swingers take their place on the regular merry-go-round of Court agendas. One year they, their schools, their practices, and their counterparts nationally are the subjects of decisions which appear to be “religious” and, on the next go-around, appear to be “secular.” Picture yourself as a judge who must deal with issues of this sort, as detailed in Rick Montgomery’s story in the Star. I myself am a product of parish-related (a term I like better than “parochial”) education of the Lutheran brand; our own parish, St. Luke Lutheran in Chicago, supports an academy; and I can testify to the quality of education in many such schools as well as to the pervasive influence of faith in the teaching and formation of children. So, what’s the problem?

Sightings has dealt with these issues as early as April 17, 2001, when we cited Walter Berns. He was a conservative constitutional scholar who regularly pointed out that a republic like ours—whose Constitution says, in the First Amendment, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”—must locate religious institutions as legally subordinate to the state. If not, we’d live in a theocracy, however benign it may seem to be. Berns knew that saying things like that did not settle the matter. The Founders, he noted, “solved” the religion problem by not solving the religious problem, which is why we still have to debate it each year.

The Columbia, Missouri, case involves a Lutheran parish’s day school, whose stewards want state-supported funds to pay for a minor but safety-enhancing resurfacing of the school’s playground. The American Civil Liberties Union argues, and lower courts have agreed, that subsidizing the upkeep of such a playground violates the canons of “separation of church and state,” because everything that happens on the school’s premises is “religious” or religion-related. The Alliance Defending Freedom disagrees, and says that play and playground at schools like Trinity Lutheran are not a religious activity and site, even by extension. They are recess-related.

As I read Montgomery’s article, I find reasons to agree with the ACLU on one aspect of the case, which will be adjudicated in the months ahead, and, a few lines later, with the ADF, whose reasons are also somehow compelling. And, like many other citizens, I have sympathy for the Court and lower courts when they have to deal with these never-solved and never totally solvable religious issues. I hope that Sightings readers will read the story and follow the case. Some will regard the issue as “solved,” and the Court to be ideologically “religious” or “secular” once more. They may regard this columnist as ideologically muddled or wishy-washy. But I remember and note how the best Christian (and, I suppose, other parochial) schools take “holistic” approaches, whereby the faith is to be developed and realized all over the place and all of the time. But, then again, one can be aware of such and also celebrate the fact that the institutions of a republic are free of state influence and control, that the institutions of religion are not dependent on state support, including the financial support of people who do not share a particular faith. We can celebrate that we live in a republic that deals with the addressable but not solvable issues of life. Can’t we?