The Supreme Court ruled wisely this week that if the Boy Scouts and other clubs can use public schools for meetings, children's Bible classes should have equal access to the schools as well.
I think the court got it exactly right. The ruling amounts to a declaration that there can be a role for religion in public schools as long as schools don't endorse a particular faith.
This concept, hardly new, dates back to the founding fathers, who sought to protect the public from being forced to support a particular faith. James Madison strongly supported the personal practice of religion and saw it as an important part of society. He steadfastly believed, however, that religion should never be imposed on the public.
The court ruled in Good News Club v. Milford Central Schools that since the Milford Central School in upstate New York opened its doors to after-school civic meetings with a moral theme, the school district could not exclude a religious club without violating First Amendment free-speech rights.
Justice Clarence Thomas, who wrote the majority opinion, posed that "we can see no logical difference in kind between the invocation of Christianity by the club and the invocation of teamwork, loyalty or patriotism by other associations" that use the school building after hours.
The 6-3 ruling is the latest in a long-running constitutional balancing act that permits an evening Christian movie series in schools but bans the posting of the Ten Commandments.
"While public schools must not endorse a religious faith, subject content must not jeopardize the rights of those who study religion. Lawyers for the Milford School District argues that very young children might be persuaded that since they meet on school property, the school endorses the Good News Club's religious outlook.
A simple solution exists to offset such potential misunderstanding: Explain that while they are meeting in a public school, the school does not necessarily endorse their subject matter, just as the school may not endorse the subject matter of nonreligious groups that also meet on school property.
Justice David H. Souter, among three dissenters, charged that the court glossed over the Good News Club's intense focus on religious conversion. Leaders, he lamented, specifically invite children to be "saved."
It is not the court's responsibility to delve into the content of any group's religion. The issue of whether the group should be allowed to meet on school property should be measured strictly on its merits, not on what that religion is taught to its adherents.
What helps persuade me that the Supreme Court reached a sound conclusion is the recent spate of school shootings across America. If ever there was a time when students who desire religious study should not be hampered, that time is now. It would be wrong to deny those interested in learning the values inherent in religion because of where the classes are taught.
The history of the court makes clear that it is not anti-religion. The court has already allowed taxpayer-funded computers and remedial help by public school teachers at religious schools. The current ruling helps level the playing field.
The line between the state and religion should never be blurred. But separation should not be arbitrary or capricious. Any separation should be based on reasoned and rational thought. No individual or group should be stigmatized or suffer discrimination simply because of the group's interest in religion or its study. That principal continues to set this nation apart from most others.
Claude Lewis is a retired columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. (c) 2001, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune.