Jewish World Review July 2, 2002 / 22 Tamuz, 5762

Paul Greenberg

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When principles conflict: Let there be light

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | There are times when great principles conflict. That is why cases reach the Supreme Court of the United States. And why they may be decided by the narrowest of margins. Was the court's 5-to-4 decision in favor of school vouchers a victory for educational opportunity, or a defeat for the separation of church and state?

Both.

But in his dissenting opinion, Associate Justice John Paul Stevens had no use for any shades of gray. "Whenever we remove a brick from the wall that was designed to separate religion and government," he warned, "we increase the risk of religious strife and weaken the foundation of our democracy."

It seems that when school vouchers became available in Cleveland, most of the poor families who took advantage of the program -- four out of five -- chose to send their kids to parochial schools. At last their kids could escape from some of the worst schools in the country and get a decent education.

Many of us cheered, but this was a matter of vast indifference to Mr. Justice Stevens, who could see only one principle involved here. As he put it in a statement that should be recorded in the annals of judicial callousness, "The mere fact that a family that cannot afford a private education wants its children educated in a parochial school is insufficient justification for this use of public funds."

Every brick in that wall of separation between church and state must stay in place, or we could find ourselves, in Mr. Justice Stevens' dark vision, as divided as "the Balkans, Northern Ireland the Middle East."

But consider what Justice Stevens and the other dissenters in this case would wall in and seal off, brick by brick: hope. These children would be sentenced to failing schools, and in turn to lives of not-so-quiet desperation in what has been called, sometimes ironically, the land of opportunity.

Speaking of mere fact, consider the quality of the schools in Cleveland. It has been seven years now since a federal court found these schools so bad they were handed over to direct state control. Ohio's state auditor in turn found the school district in a "crisis that is perhaps unprecedented in the history of American education." The district had failed to meet any of the 18 standards that the state of Ohio had set for "minimal acceptable performance" in its schools.

Thomas Jefferson, the same Thomas Jefferson who wrote of that wall of separation between church and state, also dreamed of an America in which an aristocracy of merit would arise out of an equality of opportunity. But consign millions to poverty and ignorance from early childhood, and not just their future will be threatened. The republic's will be, too. An aristocracy of something other than merit will arise out of an inequality of opportunity.

There are various threats to freedom in this world, but Mr. Justice Stevens can see only one: the danger of dividing this one nation indivisible into a collection of parochial creeds. But there is a greater danger, that of creating a vast underclass limited by race or class. And without an informed citizenry, no republic can survive. As Mr. Jefferson also observed, there never yet was a people both free and ignorant.

To follow one principle to the exclusion of any others, even an important principle like the separation of church and state, is not judgment but fanaticism. But when should one principle yield to another? Here's a good rule to follow in the case of school vouchers:

Where American society fails in its duty to educate the young, parents should be able to use the same tax money now being frittered away on awful schools to send their child to another school -- public, private or parochial. Their choice. Schools-in-name only that hold students captive in order to stay in business don't need still more money to waste. They need competition.

This voucher program in Cleveland is carefully designed to benefit the poorest of the city's families, who can receive a modest subsidy of up to $2,500 a year to educate their children. The poor are the only ones with any real financial incentive to participate in such a program. The rich already have school choice. It's called the suburbs. They don't need vouchers in order to send their kids to good schools at public expense.

There is no doubt, as Mr. Justice Stevens noted, that a single brick has been removed from the wall of separation between church and state. But in this case, the effect of the court's decision is to let the light in.

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