Cracks developing in church, state wall

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We’ve just finished up the most significant week in the year for observant Jews and Christians — Passover and Holy Week, culminating with Easter.

For most people, though, Easter has shed its religious significance. Commercial and cultural practices have turned Easter into a benign annual springtime celebration involving big social gatherings, adults parading around in bunny costumes, egg hunts and baskets stuffed with candy — kind of a mellow family-oriented Halloween.

So I have no problem at all with the city-funded Socorro Youth Center putting on Easter egg hunts for children and their parents, nor do I mind giving public workers Good Friday and Easter Monday off so they can travel to distant family events.

But I do mind — and federal courts do also — when overtly religious activities are promoted in publicly funded institutions, especially those caring for our children.

The week before Easter, I stopped by the City Youth Center to learn about the upcoming Easter egg hunt. They were in the midst of cutting sticks for the after-school program’s craft project scheduled for the Thursday before the Easter holiday — Maundy Thursday in the Christian calendar. The children were going to make decorated crosses for their families — a laudable activity, but not in a city-run youth center as part of a government-funded after-school program.

Cross-making in a public school settings like Socorro’s Youth Center program fails the Lemon test, based on the Lemon v. Kurtzman 1971 Supreme Court case. Basically, governmental entities cannot violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment — the one that prohibits the government from dictating to its citizens which religion to follow.

Kathleen G. Harris of the Commonwealth Educational Policy Institute explains that activities promoted by government entities have to pass the Lemon test, based on the 1971 case: The activity has to “have a secular purpose,” not result in “advancing or inhibiting” religion, and not “foster excessive governmental entanglement.”

What’s exempt from the Lemon test is “ceremonial deisms,” activities or sayings that have lost their religious significance in common usage, such as Easter egg hunts or the “In God We Trust” motto on our coins or the “under God” phrase in the pledge of allegiance.

The children in the Socorro Youth Center program making crosses on Holy Week were involved in an activity clearly advancing a Christian point of view. I was told as much when I asked about it.

But the Youth Center is not a parochial school, and some of the children are not Christians. Many of my third-grade students attended the public after-school program when I was a teacher in town, and some of them were Muslim, some Hindu, and some agnostic or even atheist. Their parents would not want the government to promote Christianity to their children. Children, unlike adults, are unlikely to refuse to participate; children want to please their teacher and they are more susceptible to peer pressure.

The youth center meant no harm, but harm was done. And it needs to stop.