Church, State, and Taxpayer Support Is America Moving Toward a European Model?

In my travels in the world of humanism, I’ve encountered lots of people who speak wistfully about the differences between the United States and European nations.

Indeed, in some aspects European and Scandinavian countries are miles ahead of us, particularly when it comes to social welfare programs. They’ve had single-payer health care plans for years, they support people in retirement, they provide parental leave and other forms of assistance for families, and they generally have strong social safety nets that protect their residents from the ravages of a free-market economy.

Bully for them, but there’s one area the Europeans didn’t get right: church-state relations. Many of these countries, such as England, still have established churches. Others, like Germany, impose church taxes on their citizens. Even France, with its much-vaulted principle of laïcité—official secularism—funnels money to Catholic schools.

Here in the United States, our founders saw the flaws of the European model of church-state relations and consciously rejected it. Instead, they opted for separation of church and state.

The issue that really drove the push for church-state separation in the new nation was compelled financial support for religion. If you read colonial-era history, you’ll see this issue surface time and again. The idea that someone could be forced to financially support a church they didn’t even belong to—a church whose tenets they might violently oppose—infuriated early advocates of religious freedom. The argument was brilliantly encapsulated by James Madison in his famous “Memorial & Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments” (1785). It’s a list of fifteen reasons why no one should be forced to pay a church tax—any church tax. In Madison’s view, even three pence was too much.

Given this history, it’s odd and disturbing to see our nation inching toward a European model of church-state relations, a model anchored not in the voluntary principle but in taxpayer support for houses of worship. Yet that is exactly what we are doing.

The US Supreme Court took a big step in this direction June 26 when it handed down a ruling in a case called Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer. The facts of the case seemed prosaic at first glance: a church in Missouri sought a grant from the state government to resurface the playground of its preschool with a material made from recycled tires.

State officials denied the grant, pointing to a provision in the Missouri Constitution that bars any direct diversion of taxpayer funds to houses of worship. Aided by Alliance Defending Freedom, a religious right legal group, the church sued, asserting it had a constitutional right to participate in a taxpayer-funded program of assistance. By a 7-2 vote, the high court agreed. Thus, for the first time in American legal history, our nation’s highest court has declared that there are cases where houses of worship may demand support from the taxpayers; furthermore, not giving it to them is now an illegal form of discrimination.

The opinion, authored by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, contains a footnote asserting that the decision is limited to the facts of this particular case and isn’t intended to cover other types of funding to religious groups. Roberts probably added the footnote to win support from a few of the high court’s liberals, and they naïvely accepted it. The very next day, though, the high court ordered lower courts to take a second look at decisions from Colorado and New Mexico where the courts had struck down forms of taxpayer aid to private religious schools. Clearly, some on the high court see Trinity Lutheran as a broader ruling.

Houses of worship in the United States have traditionally relied on their own members for support. This system has brought us a robust and vibrant religious community. Religious organizations must learn to stand on their own two feet and raise money through voluntary channels—or they won’t survive.

That model now stands in jeopardy. In its place, our country may be on the verge of adopting a system whereby the government (i.e. taxpayers) “helps” houses of worship pay the bill for various forms of upkeep, repair, and maintenance. Indeed, refusing to provide that money may be considered a violation of the First Amendment!

Trinity Lutheran’s advocates argued that this was a matter of public safety. They said the aid was akin to fire and public safety services that are offered to churches. The analogy doesn’t survive close scrutiny. A burning building represents a clear and present danger to all, and everyone benefits when firefighters extinguish the blaze.

The spiffy new playground mat at Trinity Lutheran may spare a few skinned knees, but it’s hardly a public benefit. At the end of the day, church officials decided they wanted to spruce up their physical facilities—but they didn’t want to pay for it. They sought to hand the bill to the taxpayers of Missouri and were given that right. Essentially, church officials in cahoots with the religious right traded away the principles of church independence, autonomy, and religious liberty for a large piece of rubber.

Under the legal theory promulgated in Trinity Lutheran, many other forms of taxpayer assistance may in the future be extended to houses of worship as long as a bogus justification citing health and safety concerns is first conjured up.

What if the local Baptist church has a sagging roof, or the nearby Catholic facility is struggling with an old, creaky furnace? These things could present a danger to people who worship in those structures, so why not demand repairs courtesy of the taxpayer? If a city decides it wants to tackle blight by spending public funds to repair dilapidated buildings, must it rebuild tumble-down churches as well? One could make that case under this ruling. All of these forms of aid to religion run counter to American history and tradition. For more than 220 years, the standard was that religious groups, and all of their enterprises, must be supported with money given freely, not funds taken by force.

As bad as the Trinity Lutheran ruling is, it may have one weird upside for humanists and other nonbelievers: we’ve long hoped to see the day when religion’s influence over American society would wane. All history shows that when houses of worship become dependent on the taxpayers for support, as opposed to their own members, religion goes into decline.

For proof of that, you need not look beyond Europe.