August 29, 2007 Editor's note: We are pleased to continue to feature Eric Thuma's columns. Thuma, a former longtime radio talk show host and political science professor, is active with the Imlay City School Board serving in many capacities over the years. He and his wife live in the Imlay City area.
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. Or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…"
So begins the First Amendment with its protections of the freedom of religion and the prohibition of government establishment of a state religion, as in the case of England with its support of the Anglican Church. In other words government shall neither support or prohibit the freedom of religion and shall be neutral as to its role in society.
Over the years the Supreme Court, through a variety of decisions, some of which have been very controversial, has attempted to create a balance between church and state although in recent years Congress and the executive branch have attempted to influence these decisions through the political process.
I have been reminded of church and state issues because of a letter written to Imlay City Schools Superintendent Gary Richards by Mr. John Sollman of Lum objecting to the decision of the school board to allow the rental of school facilities as a site for church services. In essence the letter writer objected to this arrangement because he thought it violated the separation of church and state and the use of taxpayer monies to indirectly support a religious institution.
It was Thomas Jefferson in a letter to a clergyman who first suggested the concept of a wall between church and state. That concept is suggested in the First Amendment. Since the church service of the North Goodland Baptist Church is completely and totally separate from school programs there is no violation of this principle. Whatever rental monies the district receives from the church, it is far less important than the good will generated in the community through the use of our facilities.
I can sympathize with Mr. Sollman's concerns, although the use of school facilities in this case does not in my opinion violate the separation of church and state principle. Taxpayer funds are not being used to support the church or its activities and since the service is not being conducted during school hours the only people affected by the use of the facilities are those attending the church service itself.
While some of the church members might not be local taxpayers, we frequently open our facilities to members of the general public and not just the residents of the district. Our school buildings are open to the public and as such we make no discrimination as to race, creed, color or national origin. We adhere to the restrictions on religious observance as determined by the Supreme Court and within those boundaries make our facilities available to the community for a variety of public events as well as school functions. As such, the schools provide a community center for the public and this includes the members of the North Goodland Baptist Church.
Any democracy is a delicate balance between minority and majority rights. As a school board trustee I am always conscious of requests from the church community for the use of our facilities and so long as such requests do not violate Supreme Court guidelines I can see no harm in granting such requests, if for no other reason than the good will such requests can mean for our community.
While I might personally prefer a more strict separation of church and state, the fact of the matter is it is important for all of us to be flexible in balancing the needs of religion with those of the secular world.
When politics and religion are mixed however there is a much greater danger to society. The faith- based programs of the Bush Administration and the involvement of the conservative evangelical fundamentalists in the political process to the point of nearly hijacking the Republican Party in the last two presidential elections is in my mind a much more serious violation of the wall between church and state, but the district's rental of our school facilities by no means breaches the concept of the separation of government and religion.