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Scaling the Wall with the 
Virginia ACLU

by Mary Ellen Sikes


The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 17, Number 1.


Ever since adopting the label "secular humanist" to describe my life-long worldview, I've wondered what it must be like to become embroiled in a legal battle over a church-state question. Not that there's been any shortage of such issues here in the Right-dominated Old Dominion. It's just that until a little over a year ago, there weren't any that required more of me than an impassioned speech to a school board or a carefully written letter to the editor.

Then I learned that a local Christian academy, the Covenant School, had applied for tax-free bonds in order to fund its new high school building.

Covenant is not just a loosely church-affiliated school that relegates religion to a ceremonial role at the annual graduation ceremony. Its live Nativity scene dominates a public highway each December. Photos of Covenant children praying in class appear in the newspaper periodically. The school's employment application includes essay questions about religious belief-and there are right and wrong answers to these questions, according to my teacher friends.

Yet Covenant, which advertises "academic excellence under the sovereignty of God," was actively seeking out a government benefit intended to spur growth in businesses not considered "pervasively sectarian." The academy stood to save $300,000 by avoiding a commercial lender. Further, the prospect of tax-free earnings would encourage more private investors, increasing the school's pool of funds.

At a public hearing in December 1999, the Industrial Development Authority approved the bonds, but with the caveat that they first survive a Circuit Court validation. When the Virginia office of the American Civil Liberties Union decided to present a challenge to the Authority's tentative approval of the bonds, I agreed to become one of three county taxpayers named as defendants. Nothing I witnessed during the February 28, 2000, hearing caused me to regret that choice. The school's mission statement presented evidence that Covenant "exists to challenge young men and women to know Jesus Christ as Lord in their preparation for life." The bylaws revealed that the "basis of Covenant School . . . is the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament, the infallible word of God. . . ." Headmaster Ronald Sykes testified that Covenant tries to "prepare students to live as obedient Christians." 

Other Covenant witnesses confirmed that the school admits a few non-Christian students, but that everyone takes Bible classes where Scriptures are presented as not only literary but also theological and moral resources. Daily classroom prayer and weekly chapel are mandatory. Parent-teacher conferences begin with prayer, and the staff often prays together for moral guidance. In a school self-study, the faculty had awarded itself high marks for integrating Christian principles into every aspect of a Covenant education.

One by one, those taking the stand proudly and openly proclaimed the Christian nature of Covenant, even to the extent of confirming Covenant's refusal to interview non-Christians. I found myself marveling that witnesses seemed not to understand they were nailing the coffin of "pervasively sectarian" shut, solidly disqualifying Covenant from the bond program. Apparently viewing things differently, the judge ruled in favor of issuing the bonds. Had we attended the same proceedings? How could this happen?

The answer was, in essence, by ignoring the exclusion of pervasively sectarian institutions from the bond program. The judge opined that to limit the bonds as required by the act in question would constitute "impermissible viewpoint discrimination." A Virginia Supreme Court appeal fared no better: the Covenant ruling was allowed to stand and, in its place, the Court heard a similar case involving Pat Robertson's Regent University. (Yes, secularists lost that one too.)

President George W. Bush's proposal for a federal office of faith-based programs has raised serious questions about public subsidies for groups that are free to discriminate on religious grounds. How ironic that Virginia, the birthplace of the vision that inspired the First Amendment, has quietly preceded the new White House plan to unravel it. 


Mary Ellen Sikes is vice president of the Washington Area Secular Humanists and coordinator of its Central Virginia chapter.


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