I don't know if I can tell this story without being misunderstood -- either by Muslims who are fearful or by bigots who are hateful. But let me try.
The other night I went to a meeting of educators, 30 or more, who had come to comfort each other and to think together about teaching students in the aftermath of Sept. 11. A Muslim who lives nearby spoke in sober tones about his sorrows and worries, about the distorted images of Islam.
When it was over, a young teacher came up to this man, reaching out to shake his hand in gratitude. But he looked at her and said, "My religion doesn't allow me to shake a woman's hand."
Now I know as well as anyone that Islam comes in every shade, from feminist to fundamentalist. I know that it could have been a man from another religious tradition, an ultra-Orthodox Jew for example, refusing to touch a woman. I know, moreover, that every custom is not an insult and that the stricture against touching a member of the opposite sex is explained away by some as modesty, not sexism.
Nevertheless, it felt as if this young teacher had her extended hand slapped. I was shaken by this disconnection, a refusal so at odds with the spirit of the gathering.
I left that evening grappling with a hard reality at the heart of this multicultural country. We have the absolute guarantee of freedom of religion -- even for religions that do not share core civic values.
In the past weeks, we've talked more about religion than ever in my memory. Americans have sought and found comfort in cathedrals and synagogues and mosques. We've also found confusion and dismay in the hard reality that religious fanaticism -- an ancient evil -- has reached our own shores.
On the morning after this encounter, I opened my newspaper. A letter to the editor under a headline "Let us pray" was one sarcastic sentence long: "Is it OK to pray in the schools now?"
On page 2, in and around the news about terrorism, there was word that the Supreme Court is going to hear a case about school vouchers. The justices are going to decide whether Ohio -- and by extension, any state -- can give money to parents who want to send their children to private schools, which are almost all religious schools.
The operative phrase is "school choice." The favorite notion is that parochial schools provide "competition" for the "monopoly" of public schools.
But now we are back to basics, as they like to say in school. And the basic here is not funding or "choice" but the old constitutional bedrock: separation of church and state.
The generation that wrestled over the creation of this country knew all about religious diversity and national unity. These founders established the freedom of religion, the freedom of any American to worship as he or she wishes. On the other hand, they established a set of civil values that make us Americans.
We wrestle with this duality. People can believe that the world was created in seven days. They can believe their own race is supreme, that gays are sinners, that men are tainted by the touch of a menstruating woman. They can believe that their religion offers the only way to heaven, and every nonbeliever is damned to hell.
A church has the absolute right to uphold its own beliefs and teach them to children. Without that, it would have no center. But are Americans of different religions to fund those teachings?
Proponents of "school choice" have used the language of discrimination to claim that the government is somehow biased against religion. In a Supreme Court ruling over a year ago, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that rules excluding religious schools from government programs were "born of bigotry."
But we are getting a refresher course in the power of religion to divide as well as heal. We are being reminded that secular is not a dirty word. Our shared civic values need shoring up -- as do the public schools, the places where children are molded into citizens.
There are old questions being asked these days. How does a country respect multiculturalism and uphold a shared set of civic beliefs? Should we be tolerant, even of intolerance? Is this a strength of democracy or a weakness?
In these arguments, the commitment to a separation of church and state is not a cliche. It's a core and constitutional value. We have to shake on it.
Boston Globe Newspaper Co.