Advocates of more partnerships between faith communities and public schools got a big boost earlier this month when President Bush directed the secretary of education to set up a new center for faith-based initiatives.
This isn't a new idea. Efforts to link religious groups and schools have been underway for years in many communities — especially in inner-city districts. And the last secretary of education worked hard to encourage such partnerships.
Today, cooperative arrangements are working across the nation. A few typical examples:
- On the Eastern Shore of Maryland, local clergy are among the many citizens who volunteer to teach good character in the schools.
- The school district in Broken Arrow, Okla., has an outreach effort called "In Touch" that connects administrators with religious communities to address shared concerns and explore cooperation.
- On the West Coast, churches in Vancouver, Wash., provide school supplies, support parenting programs and offer tutoring for students.
Are these partnerships constitutional? Yes, but only because care is taken to ensure that cooperative activities involving students, such as tutoring or after-school sports programs, are secular in nature.
Other communities tell a different story. Clergy come into the schools and proselytize during the school day. Schools place kids in after-school programs that promote religion. Such arrangements are clearly unconstitutional.
Bush's plan makes the constitutional questions even more difficult because it involves tax money. The new center at the Department of Education will encourage religious groups to seek federal funding for a variety of after-school activities.
Religious organizations are, of course, free to offer all kinds of programs for young people with as much religious content as they wish to include.
But if school officials are involved in setting up or sustaining these programs, or if government funding is involved, then safeguards must be in place to protect the religious liberty of students. The bottom line: religious activities can't take place during the funded program.
It isn't entirely clear yet what safeguards and guidelines the Bush administration will propose for the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives at the Education Department.
Some religious groups are bound to be wary of any guidelines. They'll resist altering the religious character of their work in order to participate in programs funded by the government, arguing that the religious component is precisely what makes their programs effective.
The question of how much or how little religion may be in government-funded social services programs is a hot topic of debate and will be the subject of much litigation.
But when public-school children are involved, it's likely that the courts will take a stricter view than they might in other "faith-based initiatives," and require that no religious activities take place during cooperative programs.
In the meantime, legal uncertainties about funding shouldn't keep public schools and religious groups from reaching out to one another to help kids. Schools and faith communities may have different missions, but they share many of the same civic and moral values, and each is committed to the well-being of children.
The key is for both parties to follow constitutional principles and guidelines. Under the First Amendment as presently interpreted by the Supreme Court, schools and religious communities can do much to enhance public education by working together for the common good.