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A Pastoral Letter by Lutheran Bishops

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ECLA), just like other Christian denominations, is besieged by numerous questions of doctrine and policy. Searching for answers, it has begun a four-year study of whether to ordain homosexuals and sanction same-sex marriages. Seeking peace among various denominations, it is exchanging views and consulting ecumenically on various subjects of justification, mutual recognition of baptisms, communion, and ordination. The September 11 terrorist attack in the United States is spurring all Christians to examine Islamic doctrine and relations between them and members of the Muslim faith. They can no longer ignore the fact that a radical Islamic movement is attacking not only Americans and their symbols of power and activity, but also Christian churches in countries such as Nigeria, Indonesia, and the Philippines and that growing violence is taking ever more innocent lives.

In a world torn by conflict and darkened by clouds of war, the seven Lutheran bishops of Pennsylvania just issued an important Pastoral Letter to all good Lutherans. Dumbfounding the faithful, it does not touch on a single issue of faith and doctrine, but passionately pleads for public education funding. It advocates a system of taxation from each according to his ability to each according to his needs. In the bishops' own words: "We challenge you: Support a system of taxation where government collects revenue based on its citizens ability to pay and provides assistance according to their needs." Surely, the bishops do not walk in the footsteps of Karl Marx, the author of the Communist Manifesto, although they may occasionally sound like him. They do not view the present tax structure as evidence of class oppression that must be replaced by a rational structure of economic cooperation, nor would they abolish such bourgeois institutions as the family and religion. They merely urge all Lutherans to "participate in or create local groups that study and advocate for a more just system of funding public education." Although they do not define the meaning of the "more just system," they hint at it in their bitter charge that "the Commonwealth's share of support of public schools has fallen from 55 percent to about 35 percent" during the last 30 years. In short, they want more state support for government schools.

The bishops do not concern themselves with the issues and values of education in Christian schools nor with their financial support. They do point to Lutheran tradition that goes back to Martin Luther himself who "appealed to city councils to establish and maintain Christian schools." But every pupil is fully aware that our public schools are not Christian. In the name of separation of state and religion, the courts have banned every Christian thought and practice from the classrooms. The U.S. Supreme Court even prohibited Christian prayers before public high school football games, finding that such prayers would violate the constitutionally mandated separation of government and religion. Public schools must neither sponsor nor engage in the "particular religious practice of prayer" (Santa Fe Independent School District versus Doe). Yet, the Lutheran bishops' greatest concern is an inadequate state support of such schools.

It is significant that the bishops are reluctant to compare both the costs and quality of the education they advocate with those of Christian schools. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, public schools spend an average of $7,367 annually per student. This amount does not even cover the indirect costs, such as capital costs and security, which may double the total sum. In contrast, the Shenango Institute for Public Policy found that total per-student spending at a Christian school, pre-K through 9th grade, in Western Pennsylvania amounts to only $2,546, which is barely one-third of the public school average. The administrative costs in public schools may exceed those of Christian schools tenfold; the typical school district has eight administrators with an average salary of $66,000 per year and numerous well-paid secretaries, while the Christian school functions efficiently with one administrator and one secretary. Despite much lower costs, the Christian school enjoys a student-teacher ratio of only 9 to 1, which compares with the Pennsylvania public school ratio of 17 to 1. As to quality, the Christian school pupils generally score two years ahead of their classmates in public schools. Yet, public school officials, teachers' unions, and Lutheran bishops demand more tax funds to hire more teachers and administrators.

He who has much to do is bound to make mistakes. The bishops undoubtedly are busy people who want to be everywhere but occasionally get nowhere. They are bound to make mistakes, lauding and pleading for godless government schools to the obvious detriment of Christian schools. The errors of great men may be venerable but they also may be very harmful.

Hans F. Sennholz