Rules Are for Schmucks: Tax Money for Churches?

A couple of weeks ago, we observed National Religious Freedom Day, which occurs on the anniversary of the enactment of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. That’s the sole legislative achievement Thomas Jefferson asked to be memorialized on his tombstone. Its remarkable text reminds us that “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical,” while enshrining in law that “no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever.”

America had very few Catholics when these words were first written, but over the next century the population swelled with Catholic immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Germany, and elsewhere. With them came the iron rules of the church: that Catholics may only marry other Catholics and that their progeny must be brainwashed into the Catholic faith. As Catholic political influence grew, politicians sought to curry favor with their constituents by promoting Catholic school taxpayer funding schemes in which every taxpayer, not just Catholics, would be compelled “to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves.”

President Ulysses S. Grant, among many others, agreed with Jefferson that this strategy was “sinful and tyrannical.” In 1875, he gave a speech reminding us that church and state should be “forever separate,” blasting government support for “sectarian schools” run by religious organizations, and insisting that publicly funded education remain “unmixed with sectarian, pagan, or atheistical dogmas.”

At Grant’s behest, Senator James G. Blaine introduced a proposed constitutional amendment to the effect that “no money raised by taxation in any State for the support of public schools…shall ever be under the control of any religious sect.” The amendment passed the House overwhelmingly, but fell four votes short of the two-thirds majority required for passage in the Senate. (Blaine himself missed the vote that day.)

Had it won those four votes in the Senate, the amendment likely would have been added to the US Constitution, because more than two-thirds of the states proceeded to amend their own state constitutions along similar lines. Blaine himself was nearly elected president a few years later—one thing many people don’t know is that at the Republican National Convention, he was nominated by none other than Robert G. Ingersoll, America’s leading secularist of the nineteenth century, who boasted that Blaine “believes in the eternal separation and divorcement of church and school.”

That was then; this is now. Politicians of both parties today aren’t made of the same stuff as either Thomas Jefferson or Ulysses S. Grant and fall all over themselves pandering for every religious vote they can scrounge. (Can you imagine a presidential candidate in either party today asking Roy Speckhardt or Sam Harris to place his or her name in nomination?) Worse yet, we have a Supreme Court which almost always follows the lead of Justice Antonin Scalia on religious privilege matters, a justice who unabashedly proclaims that it is the business of government to favor religion over irreligion at every turn.

This is why we should be deeply concerned that Scalia’s Supreme Court just agreed to hear a case challenging the federal constitutionality of one of the thirty-five state constitution Blaine Amendments. The state in question is Missouri, where the state Supreme Court recently upheld an agency’s denial of state funds to improve the playground at Trinity Lutheran Church. The Missouri Constitution says quite plainly that “No money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect or denomination of religion.” So this should be an easy case, right?

Evidently it’s not. According to the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the gang of lawyers that has made so much money in recent years pushing cases to expand religious privilege, “Missouri and every state should understand that the US Constitution prohibits religious hostility, which is what Missouri exhibited when it denied Trinity Lutheran’s…grant application.”

ADF’s theory seems to be that the First Amendment somehow requires states to make their funds available to churches the same as to everyone else. It would toss Jefferson’s Statute of Religious Freedom into the trash can by compelling every taxpayer “to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves.” I disbelieve as vigorously as I can the opinions promoted by the Trinity Lutheran Church—yet if ADF wins, I will have to pay for their playground anyway.

I suppose an argument will be made that paying for a playground is different from paying the salary of a full-time proselytizer or paying to print tracts threatening hellfire for humanists. But you don’t have to spend too many minutes in your first economics class before you learn that “money is fungible” and that every dollar freed up for Trinity Lutheran by forcing nonbelievers to pay for its playground is a dollar it gets to use for strictly religious purposes somewhere else.

That’s why the Missouri constitution (and those of thirty-four other states) is written the way it is, to avoid the need for a forensic accountant to parse out whether a particular dollar was used to promote a particular belief or not. They just say, “Don’t give tax money to churches, period.” ADF’s dream is to have all these state restrictions declared unconstitutional in one fell swoop so every church can start feeding at the public trough. It would seem, in fact, that ADF’s logic would have the court invalidate Jefferson’s Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom itself—at least the part that says “no man shall be compelled to…support any religious…place, or ministry whatsoever.”

Interestingly, a couple of years ago in Florida there was a referendum on the ballot (pushed by Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, among others) to repeal that state’s Blaine Amendment. It was decisively defeated by Florida’s voters, who apparently didn’t relish the thought of diverting their tax funds to church financial bailouts. But if ADF and Scalia get their way here, the views of mere voters won’t matter: the God industry will get its tax money anyway.