Rules Are for Schmucks: That Giant Sucking Sound

Remember Ross Perot? He’s the billionaire who ran for president back in 1992. But he didn’t have the Russians on his side, and he didn’t win.

Anyway, he’s remembered for his prediction of a “giant sucking sound” of American jobs heading south as a result of NAFTA. I’ll leave it to the economists to debate whether NAFTA has been a net benefit for the US economy or not. But the new sound I’m already starting to hear is that of organized religion, sucking money out of your and my wallets.

I try to write clearly. I don’t care if everyone agrees with what I say, but I do want everyone to understand it. I appreciate clarity in the writings of others, especially those who write constitutions. So when I see a constitutional provision like Article 1, Section 3 of the New Jersey Constitution, language that’s been there since 1776, I get a warm and fuzzy feeling because I can understand exactly what it means: “nor shall any person be obliged to pay tithes, taxes, or other rates for building or repairing any church or churches, place or places of worship.”

Everyone can understand language that simple and direct, right? Well, everyone except Superior Court Judge Margaret Goodzeit, who just determined that the language doesn’t mean what it says at all. According to Judge Goodzeit, it’s perfectly okay for Morris County, New Jersey, to spend taxpayer money repairing that county’s churches, which is exactly what the politicians there have been doing at the behest of the local God lobby. In fact, just under a third of all the historic preservation grant money in Morris County in recent years has gone to repair churches. A third!

How in the world can anyone look at those words and say it’s okay to spend a third of the entire historic preservation budget on repairing churches? The opinion is a marvel of verbal sleight-of-hand; basically, it says that the language of the New Jersey constitution is sort of like the federal First Amendment (which it isn’t), that under the federal First Amendment it’s okay for taxpayers to pay for school buses that carry parochial school students, and therefore it’s okay to force New Jersey taxpayers to pay to repair church buildings even though the New Jersey constitution says it isn’t. If you don’t believe me, go ahead and read it yourself.

In fact, the opinion seems to go even further than that. It suggests that not only can counties use tax money to bail out church budgets, but that they must do so. Otherwise, that would be “discriminating” based on religion, which the state constitution prohibits.

What the judge calls discrimination, I call a choice. Consider the more widely known example of our current federal constitution—it’s replete with examples of “discrimination.” It discriminates against slaveholders. It discriminates against people under the age of thirty-five, who are not allowed to be president. It discriminates against non-citizens, who don’t get all the protections of the Fourteenth Amendment. These are choices, just like the choice made by the New Jersey drafters back in 1776—a choice remarkably in line with the thinking expressed in Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom a few years later: “that to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical.” Now that 1776 choice has been erased by one county judge.

In places where the information age is flowering, religion is in deep financial trouble. Attendance is declining, and so are revenues. Many religious organizations can’t even honor their pension promises to their own employees. It’s the most predictable thing in the world that the God industry will run to the government asking for handouts, and it’s equally predictable that politicians will cave to what they perceive, rightly or wrongly, as a powerful lobby. Without the wisdom of those who had direct and painful experience of state-financed churches three centuries ago to shield us, we have no protection at all.

Here’s my question for Judge Goodzeit: If the words written back in 1776 are not clear enough to prevent taxpayers’ money from being used for the repair of churches, then what words would be sufficient? Would it help to add a phrase like “and we really mean it”?

I know nothing about this judge other than what she wrote in this awful opinion, but I cannot avoid the suspicion that she’s one of these politicians for whom there are no possible words that could succeed in keeping the clergy’s hands out of my pocket.

There—was that clear enough?