If you're driving along Highland Street at a certain time on Sunday, you will likely encounter several men in suits who will step in front of oncoming traffic and halt it, meanwhile directing a stream of cars in or out of an off-street parking lot. These are representatives of the World Overcomers Church helping worshippers make their entrances and exits, and, as annoying as these traffic interlopers may be to some motorists, at least they are visibly civilian. Even if some of them should happen to be law-enforcement officers on their day jobs, what they're doing on Highland offers no confusing overlap of the separate functions of church and state.
Drive along Germantown Parkway at equivalent times, and one is treated to a similar spectacle, except that it's done on a far larger scale and the people performing traffic control for Bellevue Baptist Church are dressed in the garb of Sheriff's Department employees. As if this weren't sufficiently symbolic of a governmental function, each of them also wears a vest that advertises their connection with the department in bold letters. Add to that the presence of three or four Sheriff's Department vehicles, complete with revolving and flashing lights, and what we have here is, to all appearances, an assist by the state to the affairs of a church.
As the Flyer explained in an article on the subject last week, the policies of the city and county differ on how to handle the matter of traffic control for worship services. Upon investigation, it appears that these Sheriff's Department employees are working on their own time, and the church is footing the bill. So far, so good. We do not object to the provision of qualified personnel to safeguard the flow of vehicles in what is clearly a congested situation.
Where we do get somewhat literal-minded is in our concern lest the trappings of the Shelby County Sheriff's Department, a taxpayer-paid enterprise, become identified so blatantly with the activities of a private religious facility. We take seriously the constitutional provisions for the separation of church and state, which exist, we would maintain, for the benefit of the church as well as for that of the state.
By all means, let there be official-looking and competent presences on hand to monitor the flow of traffic during high-volume times in the vicinity of a church. Let them wear signs designating their service on behalf of the church. For that matter, the public interest might even require the presence of unobtrusively clad officers on hand to supervise matters -- as is the case at school crossings, where the need for traffic control is equally obvious and at no conflict with constitutional provisions.
We do not object to the success of Bellevue Baptist Church or any other religious institution. But surely the same positive qualities and strong commitments to mission that are attracting such large throngs to worship can be put toward solving the question of traffic control. Just take a drive down Highland and see how it's done.