Mayor Bloomberg and the New York Board of Education (BOE) are right to oppose a bill before the New York State legislature that would authorize the use of public school buildings for religious worship.
There may be some who oppose the bill because they are antagonistic to religion. I am not one of them. America desperately needs the inspiration that only religion can provide. Perhaps there are some who would like to remove religion from the general marketplace of ideas. I am not one of them. Religion in America has always been in the heart of the public square.
It is precisely because I believe in the central role of religion in America that I support the position of the BOE. The First Amendment principle that the state shall not establish a religion or favor one religion over another has been one of the keys to the American success story, strengthening both American religion and democracy. It has protected religion from government control and helped ensure religious comity and civility, allowing religion in America to enjoy a status unequaled in any other advanced democracy. Indeed, in survey after survey, Americans regularly identify themselves as the most religious of all citizens of Western democracies.
The separation of religion and state is good for religion. The greatest disservice we can do to both religion and American democracy is to allow a creeping annexation of government over religious institutions. While government subsidies may temporarily appear to benefit a church, synagogue or mosque, in reality it is harmful to us. It ties us too closely to government and the strong political pressures inherent in a political environment. We should also not forget that state subsidies come with a price: state rules, regulations, monitoring, audits and control. While government promotion of a particular religious viewpoint or denomination might temporarily appear to benefit that denomination, in the long run in weakens it, because Americans do not want state-sponsored religion. We are not Britain, where the queen is also the head of the national church. Americans want government separated from religion.
Both religion and democracy are social goods. The issue is not how to exclude one in favor of the other; it is how to balance these social goods in the healthiest way, consistent with the founding principles of American society.
It would be one thing if a synagogue, church or mosque were to be in a temporary bind; if its sanctuary were damaged, or if some other difficulty forced them out of their home. If the use of public space would alleviate this harm and offer that religious institution an opportunity to get back on its feet -- in the spirit of good neighborliness alone -- this might be contemplated.
However, if a religious institution were to meet indefinitely in a public building for prayer and worship, week after week, month after month, and year after year, for all intents and purposes that public space becomes its spiritual home. Even if members of the particular institution do not see it that way, enough members of the community would, so as to give the appearance of government support. If it looks like a church, if it acts like a synagogue, if it speaks like a mosque at some point, this is what it becomes in the eyes of the community.
The issue is not our view on religion, and certainly not antagonism toward religion. The issue is government sponsorship or the appearance of government sponsorship and the encroachment upon that very constitutional principle that is responsible for strengthening and preserving both religion and democracy. The imbalance is compounded when the public institution is a school; first, because of the impressionable nature of children, and second because a school is considered by us to be the purest and most uncontroversial of our public institutions. In addition, the issue is not only the appearance of government support, oftentimes it is real government subsidy. After all, if a religious community meets regularly in a public school, its costs of operation are partially subsidized by the taxpaying public.
We are many millions of New Yorkers of a wide variety of religious faiths. Some New Yorkers have no religious faith. Indeed, New York City is one of the most religiously and ethnically diverse cities on earth. At the heart of our self-image, and key to our economic, social and political success, is our religious tolerance and mutual respect. Our religious comity rests upon the principle that government does not choose what denominations it favors, what religions it will allow to rent or occupy public buildings, and what religious institutions it will endorse.
I fully appreciate the financial pressures of sustaining a religious institution and it pains me to see religious communities leaving public school buildings that have been their home for many years. Nonetheless, despite how some may want to portray it, to oppose the bill is not anti-religious. To the contrary, the bill's defeat would be helpful to us in the long run. We are immeasurably strengthened by the government keeping its proper distance.