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Separating church from state


THE FOUNDERS made it clear: Government would not establish a religion, nor would it interfere with people practicing their religion.

Had the crafters of the U.S. Constitution been able to foresee all the entanglements between church and state that would follow they may have thrown up their hands and gone back to the monarchy.

How would they have felt, for instance, about government creating a special school district to serve students from one particular religion, as New York did in 1989 for the Jewish Satmar Hasidic sect?

Would they have seen that as government favoring one religion over another, in essence establishing a state religion?

Or would they have seen that government-created school district as an effort by government to enable children with disabilities to get the education they deserve without being taunted by non-Hasidic children for their dress and customs?

We can play this guessing game for years, and we still won't all agree. That, too, was part of the founders' attempts to accommodate different viewpoints.

The U.S. Supreme Court, though, does have the final say in all things constitutional. And recently the majority of the court, in a 6-3 decision, viewed New York state's creation of the Kiryas Joel school district as an unconstitutional act by government -- one that showed preference for one religion.

The ruling in the New York case does seem to open the door to greater tolerance and to accommodate all religions without having government foster any particular religion.

New York overstepped constitutional boundaries between church and state when it decided to create a public-school district specifically for one particular religion.

Justice David Souter, who wrote the majority opinion, offered other avenues for the government to help the Satmar Hasidic children without creating a school district specifically drawn to exclude children of all other faiths.

The state of New York, for instance, could provide remedial programs for all developmentally disabled children at private school sites. The distinction would be that government wouldn't be creating one special school district for one particular religion; it would instead offer all children, regardless of their religious beliefs, a public program.

Myriam Marquez is an editorial page columnist for the Orlando Sentinel.

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