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In my three decades of involvement in the deliberations of The News editorial board, I almost invariably recused myself from dialogue on issues involving the separation of church and state. I did not want the other members of the board to be unduly influenced by my fanaticism on the issue. I thought it best that The News stance be determined by a balanced approach arrived at by all on the board. My own is very simplistic -- any erosion of the church-state relationship is a danger to our democracy and must not be permitted to prevail.

My personal stance is extreme, and the board was always aware that I would not deviate from my deep conviction about it. Given that, I felt more comfortable in letting the other board members make the decisions on any policies pertaining to church-state relationships.

Admittedly, church-run organizations that receive government assistance without promoting religion generally have done a fine and important job. The federal government subsidizes secular work by many religious-oriented agencies, and has done well in separating out indoctrination in matters of faith.

Despite this record, I continue to be concerned that even the slightest deviation from total separation of church and state will ultimately undo one of the most important principles of our democracy. For this reason, I have opposed every proposal for government aid to religion-based institutions, despite approval by the Supreme Court.

President Bush's move to expand this funding blurs the lines between government and the religious community, confirming my concern that the lines of separation will continue to erode as the relationship becomes closer and closer.

Through the years, the Supreme Court has sanctioned the allocation of tax dollars to religious schools for restricted non-religious purposes. As recently as 1999, it upheld the allocation of federal funds for the purchase of computers for church schools.

These and similar incursions are not dangerous unto themselves, but will ultimately lead to deterioration of the wall between church and state rooted in long-standing interpretations of the First Amendment. It's analogous to a crack in a wall that will ultimately grow into a major crevice if not quickly repaired.

The issue of separation now faces a new and crucial test with President Bush's moves to provide federal funds to so-called "faith-based" institutions. Interestingly, the president in his comments uses that euphemism for churches or church institutions.

The president believes that religious groups should be allowed to receive governmental aid because they are effective at helping people in need. I cannot dispute that they can be effective, but that is begging the point. The constitutionality of such assistance is the issue. The courts and police don't sanction a burglar's illegal acts if he uses the proceeds of his deeds to assist the needy. The same kind of thinking needs to apply here.

The president feels, and I don't question his sincerity, that funding fundamentally religious programs is fine if these programs produce results. I have been surprised and appalled at public reaction to the president's program.

There appears to be a feeling that it would be fine if it in no way involves the explicit teaching of religious beliefs by the funded institutions. This fails to recognize the fundamental and paramount principle that must apply -- that any extension of governmental aid to religions or religiously based institutions is further erosion of church-state separation.

Allowed to exist, such aid will almost assuredly spread, and could ultimately be sanctioned by a politicized Supreme Court. The recent Florida election-result fiasco has proven that the court can and does make political decisions.

There is a body of opinion on the Supreme Court today that favors a so-called neutrality principle, as opposed to the ironclad separation of church and state principle. Justices Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy in 1999 wrote that the government can offer aid to groups without regard to their religious affiliation so long as the government does not favor or disfavor a religion.

The more liberal justices say there should be no aid to religion.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor last year characterized the neutrality rule as one that would allow "the actual diversion of government aid to religious indoctrination." This, she said, would be inconsistent with the Constitution's establishment clause. I agree totally with her conclusion.

The words of Justice Hugo Black in 1947 should not be forgotten. He wrote, "No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion."

MURRAY B. LIGHT is the former editor of The Buffalo News.

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