Like most Americans, I am aware that our public schools are, in large part, what made our democracy lasting. Where Europe segregated its students in church schools, the practice of religious segregation has been limited in the United States.
Here, the daughter of the banker, the son of the farmer, the factory workers' children studied together in the public schools; they met on common ground. They knew each other as American citizens not as Catholics or Protestants or Jews. The public school, unlike the sectarian school, has been a center of community interest. It brings people together.
Now, we are facing the increasing religious segregation of school children. This is the result of some constitutionally dubious court decisions and legislative actions granting huge sums of money to church schools and their sponsoring religions. The "melting pot" that epitomized our democracy is being threatened by religious voucher programs and public aid of all kinds to religion. In Wisconsin there is even an announced "partnership" between the Milwaukee Catholic Archdiocese and the Milwaukee public school system.
It is time to take note of the lessons of history and of the problems of entanglement of church and state that have threatened the peace of the world for so many centuries. It is time to reflect on the current religious tragedies in the Balkans, in Ireland, in the Middle East. These are religious conflicts in countries that ensure future animosity by segregating their students by religion.
A friend of mine who is a journalist spent a year studying in northern Ireland. When she came back she said that it was inescapable not to recognize that the religious segregation of school children perpetuated the problems there.
"They grow to maturity," she said, "without ever even meeting someone of a different religion."
My granddaughter, a public school student, has attended public schools with children of every color and with a variety of religious beliefs. Her classrooms "look like the world." She and her schoolmates will never have the insular view of the religiously segregated child.
Our public schools are what we make them. We will never improve them by violating separation of church and state and pouring public money into religious schools.
Separation of church and state has served our country well. We were first among nations to establish it. We destroy it at great peril.
Please work to protect and promote this constitutional principle that is now under unprecedented attack and is being dishonored in our courts and our legislatures. The fragmentation of our public schools can only result in the fragmentation of our democracy.
Anne N. Gaylor, President
Freedom From Religion Foundation