Recess for Religion

On the Other Hand

It's been Church vs. State in the Constitutional ball game and the stands have been packed. After surveying the field with a stick in its hand for a number of years, the umpire, the Supreme Court, has finally staked out the foul lines. Out in foul territory are the school-children of Champaign, Illinois. They can't get religion during school hours, when clerics invade the public schools to give it. This was the Court's decision in the Vasht--McCollom case in 1948. But safely inside the foul line, since last week, are the kids from New York, who are "released" for an hour a week to attend the classroom of a religious institution.

Finally the Court has drawn the line, and thus staked out the area in which religious education could operate. Two million children attend religious classes. For a while it looked like any program of religious education might be unconstitutional. But now, anyone over the line on the New Yorkers' side is safe. And the Champaign case decision sets up the other limit. For all the furor that was raised, the line was a good one to draw.

Released time was a Church-State compromise from the start. The public schools of New York State faced a wholesale boycott by parents who believed religion was as essential a part of an education as any of the three R's. They were seriously considering the advantages of parochial schools. So that public schools could hold their place as a meeting ground and a melting pot for children of all religions, nationalities, and classes, school officials decided to give parents a choice: they could send their children to religious schools during the "released" hour, or they could keep them in school.

This second choice is not the inequitable waste of time opponents of released time say it is. The kids who stay in school are not forced to sit and twiddle their thumbs, building up resentment against their more fortunate buddies who have skipped off to the cloister. Rather, they are free to take part in some of the beneficial and democratizing activities a public school offers: athletics, extra-curricular programs, and the like.

So "released time" gives parents a choice between benefits. If they believe their children will get more out of religious education than from the Bridge Club in Room 233 of the public school, they can send their children to church. If not, the children stay in school. If parents discover that the hour of religion does not balance the hour of school activity, they can keep them in school. The decision is theirs, and no official's.

If many Americans didn't think religion was an important part of life, there would not be 88 million church members in the United States. By upholding released time, the Supreme Court has insured children a way to get religion without missing the democratizing benefits of public schools. The court has not shot holes in the wall separating Church and State. It has just made it plain that the wall should not be so high that Church and State should never catch a glimpse of each other. The Court has made clear what some thought, for a while, it might have forgotton: that religion and democracy have similar roots, share common beliefs, and that Americans might profit from both.