As a Presbyterian, and a minister in The Presbyterian Church (USA), I cannot look at these questions without remembering my denomination’s long and illustrious tradition of valuing the cultivation of intellect through excellent education. We are people who value education and the use of our intellectual capacity in our life of faith. John Calvin, who greatly influenced the development of Presbyterian theology, believed that in order to “rightly divide” God’s word, you had to be educated in language and the humanities.
That passion for excellence in educational formation has stayed with Presbyterian folk for centuries. I received my undergraduate degree from Illinois’ Millikin University, which, like Memphis’ own Rhodes College, was an institution of higher learning founded by faithful Presbyterians. I was raised and educated in both public and private educational institutions. My daughters have been as well.
There is a great and ongoing debate in this country over tax dollars – what they are for – and if the government has enough of them. It is the national debate of our time : “How do we fund what the government provides and how do we evaluate what the government is responsible for?” I believe that government has a large hand in the educational processes in this country. I also believe that many people who pay tax dollars locally have no earthly idea how those dollars are applied in our public educational system or that faith based grants are offered to religious institutions by the government. As good citizens, it would be of great value for each taxpayer to know how tax dollars are being spent locally on public and private educational and religious ventures. We need to be more inquisitive and we need to take more of an interest in what is already happening. This would help all of us to be better informed in constructing our opinions about what “needs to happen.”
If you are familiar with the Constitution of the United States, you know that the phrase separation of church and state does not appear in it. It was Thomas Jefferson who interpreted that the First Amendment put up a “wall of separation” between church and state. Jefferson’s interpretation has been the subject matter of many Supreme Court cases.1
The First Amendment states that Congress shall not make a law for the establishment of religion and cannot impede the practice of religion. In 1971, the case, Lemon v Kurtzman (403 US 602 ), established what is known as “ The Lemon Test.” The ruling answered the question: can the state pay some of the salary of teachers who teach in parochial schools? The Supreme Court wrote: “In the absence of precisely stated constitutional prohibitions, we must draw lines with reference to the three main evils against which the Establishment Clause was intended to afford protection: “sponsorship, financial support, and active involvement of the sovereign in religious activity. Every analysis in this area must begin with consideration of the cumulative criteria developed by the Court over many years. Three such tests may be gleaned from our cases. First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose; second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion; finally, the statute must not foster “an excessive government entanglement with religion.”2
It is my sincere belief that religious people who are congregants at churches, synagogues and mosques… faithful and competent people… and capable citizens of age in this city and this county have tremendous opportunities to support public education through Memphis’ Adopt A School program, through tutoring, through mentoring, and through volunteering – but I do not believe it wise to mix government dollars with faith-based initiatives.
If every qualified person who attended a church, synagogue or mosque would commit to meet with a child in a public school to tutor or mentor them each school year, the spirit of this city would change, the minds of the children would be changed, and the hearts of our citizens would change. The children in Mid-South schools would have a chance to climb higher on the ladder of disillusioning statistics. If every one of us who have benefited from a good education would turn and help a child in our public school systems – we could change the results of the 2007 report from the Urban Child Institute which said, “Children born and raised in Shelby County face some of the grimmest futures in the nation.”3
What the children of our city need is to know that we care about them – that they are worth our investment of time and attention – not simply that our government will provide for a few of them to improve their educational environment through help with tuition to attend a faith based school.