THE U.S. Supreme Court's recent 5-4 decision confers constitutional legitimacy upon state tax-funded vouchers for parents of public school students who choose to send their children to parochial or private schools.
In 25 years I wonder if our country will be as united as its name implies. States across the country may now initiate financial support for Christian schools in lieu of exclusive support for public education. Fairness requires equal support for Catholic and Baptist, but also Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and other religious schools.
We may also be required to support atheist schools or those dedicated to a particular purpose, such as Spanish-curriculum schools.
When the state gets involved in financially supporting schools that represent parochial interests - religious and private schools - rather than schools that represent the public interest - public schools - undesirable results follow.
Tax-funded tuition vouchers erode the church-state separation legacy we inherited from Roger Williams, a Baptist preacher, who learned the value of church-state separation the hard way. The dogmatically Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony jailed him repeatedly for preaching until he left to found the religiously tolerant colony of Rhode Island.
Conversely, state support will inevitably lead to unwanted state entanglement in religious schools' curriculum and services requirements.
This court decision belittles the great mission that public education performs for the United States: building a broadly inclusive American character. Public schools are a place where children of Baptist, Catholic, Ba'hai, Jew, Muslim and agnostic families rub shoulders with each other as with Latinos, Vietnamese-Americans and immigrants from the former Soviet empire.
All these children, whether their parents be Republicans, Democrats, nonvoters or green-card holders, say the Pledge of Allegiance together. They learn to get along together. This is the blessing public school integration gave the South - blacks and whites learning side by side, learning that each individual should be judged on his or her character rather than by some stereotype.
Learning together in public schools bridges religious, racial, ethnic or socioeconomic divides and binds us together as one people: Americans. It is sharing this educational experience that has made this country of immigrants into one country.
Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens dissented from the bench: "I have been influenced by my understanding of the impact of religious strife . . . in the Balkans, Northern Ireland and the Middle East. Whenever we remove a brick from the wall that was designed to separate religion and government, we increase the risk of religious strife and weaken the foundation of our democracy."
A balkanized America is not the America we love. It is not the country spoken of in our national motto: E pluribus unum: From many, one. Let's keep learning to live together.
REES SHEARER of Emory is a counselor at Rhea Valley Elementary School in Washington County.
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