Last month, Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening announced his plan to earmark as much as $6 million of the state's expected $1 billion budget surplus for private and religious schools to buy books and computers. Before he makes a final decision, however, the governor should consider the lesson of Saint Clement's Island.

Saint Clement's is a deserted place, a windswept blip in the broad waters of the lower Potomac 30 miles up the Maryland side from Chesapeake Bay. But in May 1634, it became home to a group of Catholic men, women and children who anchored there after making what was then a rare and dangerous crossing of the North Atlantic.

Saint Clement's, the first English colony in Maryland, was founded by these Catholics in order that they might worship as they saw fit. They did not want their taxes to support the state religion of Oliver Cromwell, so they fled London for the New World.

Many who did not flee lost property, their civil rights and, in some cases, their lives. In a park just outside the western walls of the Tower of London stands a stone commemorating the death there of Lord Kilmarnock, a Scot who chose to be hanged rather than give up his faith. The little town of Kilmarnock on Virginia's Northern Neck was named after him by early Catholic settlers in the commonwealth.

When Americans declared independence in 1776, we decided that we did not want a state religion and that no one would be compelled to support another's religion. It is a system that has worked well. The sentiment was enshrined in the First Amendment, which prohibits state religion and says that people are free to choose their own faith.

Uncle Sam has kept hands off, even as billions of tax dollars go to support religion indirectly. Every church school is tax-exempt, enjoying tax preferences in every aspect of its economic life. What's at stake in Maryland, though, is a break with this separation, which has served us well. Even if the religious and private schools agreed to use the state-funded books and computers only for secular purposes, who does the monitoring to make sure that is so? Do we create a church-state bureaucracy? Isn't this an unconstitutional entanglement of government in religious affairs. And what about public schools?

The Maryland Constitution requires the state to provide a "thorough and efficient public education" to all students. But in Prince George's County schools, public schools are grossly overcrowded, with underpaid and overworked teachers. Instead of helping these children, though, the governor would give taxpayer money to the 40,000 county students in private schools, who are overwhelmingly well-off African Americans in church schools. What about the 52,000 public school kids -- also overwhelmingly African Americans -- who are so poor that they qualify for free and reduced lunches?

The rich parents no doubt say that their children attend private religious schools because county schools are failing to do their job. While this is a deplorable situation, the remedy is not to divert public funds to private schools but to use those funds to improve public schools.

The American Civil Liberties Union believes that funding of private religious schools violates both the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the U.S. Constitution. The Maryland General Assembly should steer clear of this legal quagmire.

As the governor finalizes his legislative package, it would be nice if he gave a little thought to those hearty souls of Saint Clement's Island, who fled to here so many years ago in search of a place where government stayed apart from religion.

-- Ray Lane

is on the governing board of the ACLU Maryland Foundation and on the executive committee of the ACLU's Prince George's chapter.