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Jewish World Review June 14, 2001 / 24 Sivan, 5761

Cal Thomas

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The school superintendent who knew too much --
SCHOOL superintendent J.J. Phillips believed certain ideas were so important that he compiled a little book for his students to memorize between the first and eighth grades. He dedicated "Selections for Memorizing'' to the "Boys and girls of the Lancaster (Ohio) public schools to the end that none may go astray, but that all may be led to live high and holy lives.''

The book was intended as a supplement to the studies in that Ohio school system. It contained verses from the Bible, including The L-rd's Prayer, the 23rd Psalm, the Beatitudes and instructions about honesty and integrity. It reflected a consensus at the time of how one should live so that personal and societal welfare might be promoted. There were also poems about light and fun things, as well as thoughts about respecting your parents and honoring your country.

In 1923, when that little book was printed, it was not considered harmful to the spiritual or intellectual well-being of students. Quite the opposite. Today, that book would have a hard time finding its way into a public school library, much less be assigned reading.

Monday's 6-3 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that a Milford, N.Y. public school must allow a Christian club to meet on school property after hours when it provides facilities for other clubs is something of a bow to the past when thoughts like Phillip's were considered during the school day. Today, religious watchdog groups like the ACLU and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State behave as if religion is a harmful germ and that schools and public policy function best when they are decontaminated of such ideas.

While religion does not need the support of government, neither should it receive government's antipathy.

The teaching of a child cannot, or should not, be done piecemeal. Good nutrition requires a balanced diet. No one would think of giving a child a healthy breakfast, then feeding that child food containing harmful bacteria for lunch. It's the same with intellectual and moral development. If children are being taught one thing at home and at their place of worship, only to have those concepts undermined by the state in taxpayer-supported schools, the result is likely to be a malnourished mind and spirit.

Under the First Amendment, Congress is proscribed from making any law restricting speech, religion and the press because the Founders saw this of expression as healthy and helpful to the republic. In its ruling on the Good News Club vs. Milford Central School, the Supreme Court properly concluded that to exclude the Christian club solely on the basis of the content of its message was to discriminate against that club on free speech grounds. I wish the court had reached the same conclusion about "free exercise'' on religious grounds, but let's not look a gift court in the mouth.

When I scan the readings in Phillips' book, I read lines about nobility and integrity, reverence and honor. I wonder who decided these things could harm the children who learn them. Who held a referendum that allowed people to conclude secularism was a better "religion'' than, as the old hymn puts it, the "G-d of our fathers, whose almighty hand...In this free land, by Thee our lot is cast''?

If our government is to be of, by and for the people, why can't the people decide these things instead of narrow interest groups and unelected judges? Fifty years of imposed secularism has given us a record on which we can judge the success or failure of religious cleansing.

In our age, there is no more objective Truth. No idea is to be preferred over another. It wasn't so in 1923 in Lancaster, Ohio. Then, sixth graders were asked to memorize what today would be the politically incorrect:

"G-d, give us men! A time like this demands
"Strong minds, great hearts, true faith and ready hands;
"Men whom the lust of office does not kill;
"Men whom the spoils of office cannot buy;
"Men who possess opinions and a will;
"Men who have honor; men who will not lie...''

(From "Wanted,'' by Josiah Gilbert Holland, 1819-1881)

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