COMMENTARY: Religious freedom is an ongoing balancing act

c. 1997 Religion News Service

(Rabbi Rudin is the national interreligious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee.)

UNDATED _ Striking the proper balance between religious liberty and church-state separation has become an increasingly tense issue in many American communities. The latest dispute involving this issue is taking place in DeKalb County schools in Alabama, where federal Judge Ira DeMent recently ruled that student-led prayers and other religious activities in public schools are unconstitutional.

Reacting in anger, an 18-year-old Alabama high school senior, Jermaine Davis, sounded a rallying cry that may be an ominous portent of things to come in the United States. Davis asserted: ``Everyone around here is God-believing. Everyone around here believes in Christ, as far as I know. Having Jesus in our school is something that we need. It gives us strength.''

Judge DeMent's ruling is based on the Constitution's First Amendment, which prohibits the legally sanctioned establishment of religion in the United States. The judge's order forbids school-organized or officially sponsored religious activities, including the distribution of religious materials, as well as prayers that are broadcast on public address systems, or are invoked at graduations, student assemblies, and athletic events.

But because freedom of religion is also guaranteed under the First Amendment, the judge permitted voluntary religious activities before and after school hours, the wearing of religious symbols by students, the academic study of religion and, of course, personal private prayers (something most students do before a tough test).

Americans have carefully and painfully struggled to balance the twin principles of church-state separation and religious freedom for more than 200 years. Every generation has reinterpreted the meaning of the First Amendment, and our generation is no different.

But clearly, Judge DeMent's careful ruling, and the legal and historical precedents upon which it was built, did not satisfy Jermaine Davis. Nor did it satisfy Alabama Gov. Fob James, who publicly vowed to ``resist Judge DeMent's order by every legal and political means, with every ounce of strength I possess.''

And in Gadsden, Ala., Circuit Court Judge Roy S. Moore has attracted national attention by defiantly hanging the Ten Commandments on the wall behind his bench next to the state seal and the American flag. Moore's blatant mixing of religion and state is currently in litigation.

The current disputes in Alabama reminds me of my school days in Virginia, which featured frequent classroom readings from the New Testament, evangelical Protestant prayers at commencement exercises, and sectarian Christmas and Easter assemblies.

Because Southern Baptists were the majority in my hometown, Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, and Jewish youngsters _ minorities all _ often felt excluded.

As a Jewish member of our high school chorus, I was once specifically requested by the choir director not to sing the Christological words of the many carols in our repertoire. She told me, ``During the school assembly, just mouth the words, Jim!''

Ironically, it was the same advice my parents gave me, and marked the end of my singing career.

Jermaine Davis' words, with the necessary changes to reflect student demography, could be invoked by any number of public school students in the United States. Here are a few examples that immediately come to mind:

_ ``Everyone around here believes in Mormonism ... having the Book of Mormon in our school is something we need.''

_ ``Everyone around here believes in Roman Catholicism ... having the Catechism in our school is something we need.''

_ ``Everyone around here believes in Judaism ... having the Torah and Talmud in our school is something we need.''

_ ``Everyone around here believes in Islam ... having the Koran in our school is something we need.''

When sectarian prayers are recited in a neutral American setting such as public school classrooms, they are highly divisive and hurtful to the non-majority students. Carried to their extreme, sectarian religious activities have the potential to Balkanize an America that is already sharply divided by race, class, ethnicity, language and immigration status. Do we really need increased religious polarization as well?

The fervor in Alabama comes at a moment in our nation's history when the population of the United States is increasingly multi-religious. A hallmark of America has been its extraordinary ability to avoid bitter sectarian strife and to accord full freedoms to every religion known to the human family.

Of course, Jermaine Davis is a fervent Christian, but millions of other Americans are equally committed to a different set of religious beliefs. Public schools are in enough trouble without becoming battlegrounds of faith. To allow that happen is to invite disaster.