Public expression of religion OK — with safeguards

Most Jews were still nursing their bruises from the Supreme Court's latest decisions on church-state matters when President Bill Clinton kicked them in the ribs again with his subsequent comments on the subject.

He said, you will recall, that "nothing in the First Amendment converts our schools into religion-free zones or requires all religious expression to be left behind at the schoolhouse door."

The president clearly supports the Supreme Court decision that a public school may finance a student religious newspaper if it finances other student activities. He also applauded the Supreme Court decision to allow religious expression in public places. Clinton said, "Religion has a proper place in public because the public square belongs to all Americans."

Jews have always split down the middle on allowing religious expression in public parks and such. But a large majority of Jews have opposed religious expression in schools, even time for silent prayers, a practice that Clinton supported in his remarks.

So, are we seeing the Christianizing of America? Or just the religionizing of America? If you equate those, then we are indeed in trouble. But both the president and the Supreme Court have explicitly said that while public religionizing is usually OK, public Christianizing is not.

Even the main religious-right organizations are not calling for official Christianization, perhaps partly because they know they cannot get it. There are just too many Christian sects in this country to make that politically possible. In early America, many public figures objected to policies disadvantaging Jews on the grounds that such policies would set a precedent for disadvantaging one Christian sect or another.

The question is, will removing obstacles to public religion unofficially create a kind of Christian dominance in public life? A little naively, the president said, "Teachers and school administrators should ensure that no student is in any way coerced to participate in religious activity." But in the lower grades particularly, children are in a naturally coercive situation because of the influence of peers as well as school authorities. That creates risks for sectarian abuse.

The larger reality, however, is that we are in the midst of a religious revival nationally — and there is a kind of cultural war being waged between that revival and the continuing strength of secularism. The same thing is happening within Jewish life: While a large number of Jews are slipping away, a large number are intensifying their religious identity.

The organized Jewish community should not just dig in its heels, opposing every move toward public religious expression. The role of the Jews should be to help nurture the general religious revival in America. First of all, it cannot be separated from the efforts at revival among American Jews themselves. For the sake of the new spirit, it is also necessary for Jews to celebrate their religion in the public square and for Jewish students to do so in the public schools they attend.

Would that become hazardous at times? Yes. Jews must support the religious spirit — which is their genius and which, after all, they invented in its modern form — while at the same time strenuously opposing sectarian abuse.

That will require active and creative vigilance, rather than just passive and knee-jerk resistance. Why not silent prayers, with safeguards? Why not religious expression in public parks, or by religious clubs in schools, with safeguards? At least these ideas call for more discussion in Jewish circles.

The key is in the limits expressed by both the Supreme Court and President Clinton: no official preference for one religion over another. The saving mantra is: One religion, no! All religions, yes!