Although debate concerning the display of the 10 Commandments grabs headlines, an issue that has slipped to the back of public consciousness will ultimately be more important in determining the relationship between church and state, according to two members of the Hope College faculty.

Political scientists Dr. David Ryden and Dr. Jeffrey Polet are co-editors of "Sanctioning Religion? Politics, Law, and Faith-Based Public Services," published earlier this year by Lynne Rienner Publishers of Boulder, Colo. The book explores the use of government funding in support of social service programs delivered by religious organizations, an initiative that has received particular emphasis during the presidency of George W. Bush.

"I think it is sure to be a key battleground on which the future of church-state relations is going to be fought," said Ryden, an associate professor of political science. "It's really going to be significant - far more so, I think, than these other largely symbolic issues that grab headlines and that people get rather excited over."

The more important question, the two co-editors believe, is under which circumstances the government may, under the U.S. Constitution, award funding to religious organizations that deliver social services. While the First Amendment mandates the disestablishment of religion, they noted, how the U.S. Supreme Court will interpret the clause as regards such funding remains to be seen.

Ryden stated that the Supreme Court has ruled only once on a case in this context, and that was almost two decades ago, well before faith-based initiatives were thrust into the spotlight. Now, multiple cases are working their way through the lower courts and it's only a matter of time before one reaches the Supreme Court. Ryden and Polet developed "Sanctioning Religion?" to highlight the importance of the issue and to enhance the discussions surrounding it.

"Given the power of the Court in our current politics," Polet noted, "it is reasonable to assume the Court will take on these cases in the interest of fashioning church/state relations, even if their prior efforts have proven largely unsuccessful."

"The idea of the book grew out of a frustration with the nature of the debate over the constitutional arguments surrounding Bush's faith-based initiatives," Ryden said. "On both sides, we were hearing overblown rhetoric and abstract arguments and objections that really bore little connection to how the programs were actually running."

According to Ryden and Polet, Bush made emphasizing faith-based social service initiatives a major campaign platform and focus in his first term. "This was really a hot-button issue," Ryden said. "This was the president's original, signature domestic policy idea."

The president, Ryden and Polet explain, sought legislation that would make it easier for faith-intensive groups to seek government funding for such programs, widening a door opened through the "charitable choice" welfare reform legislation of 1996 that, among other provisions, decreed that religious organizations had to be given the same consideration as secular nonprofits for funding. Although the proposed legislation eventually stalled, Ryden said that Bush has been able to significantly further his agenda through a series of Executive Orders designed to make the federal bureaucracy more receptive to partnering with religious charities.

In the book, Ryden and Polet solicited contributors - some skeptical of the funding model and some sympathetic to it - to present case studies of religious organizations actually involved in delivering social services with government funding and to examine the constitutional issues raised.

"Given the contentiousness over church/state relations in our current politics, we thought it was important to take a more balanced approach by examining what happens when government and religious organizations work in partnership with each other," Polet said, "and then assessing the effects of such partnerships on both the identity of the religious organizations as well as the religious freedoms of the persons affected by those programs."

Highlighted programs range from an interfaith agency in New Jersey that offers shelter--without a strongly present religious element--for children and families, to a prison ministry that makes faith a central part of its work with inmates. A chapter by Ryden reaches close to home, discussing a faith-based mentoring program for welfare recipients that was the result of a partnership between Good Samaritan Ministries and Ottawa County.

Ryden and Polet believe that such programs are the kind that will increasingly receive judicial scrutiny. In the meantime, they won't make a prediction concerning which way the Supreme Court might vote. "It's a really murky picture - it's difficult to predict," Ryden said.

Ryden observed that the Supreme Court has been fairly evenly split on other church-state issues. However, he said, that balance could well change with the announced retirement of Sandra Day O'Connor and Bush's opportunity to appoint her successor. Polet added that O'Connor played the central role in determining the Court's position on these issues, and has left a lot of room for the Court to move to either more favorable or less favorable positions concerning the role of organized religion in U.S. politics.

"It's ultimately the Supreme Court that will define the parameters," Ryden said. "This is an area where O'Connor's replacement will have much to say and could be determinative in shaping the law down the road."

Ryden has written about Bush's interest in faith-based initiatives before. He is co-author of the book "Of Little Faith: The Politics of George W. Bush's Faith-Based Initiatives," published by Georgetown University Press in 2004. His publications also include two other books, "Representation in Crisis: The Constitution, Interest Groups, and Political Parties" and "The U.S. Supreme Court and the Electoral Process."

Polet is an associate professor of political science at Hope. He has written numerous articles published in scholarly journals concerning political theory and the intersection between religion and public life.