April 2019 Church & State Magazine | Editorial

The U.S. Supreme Court last month declined to hear a case from New Jersey involving taxpayer aid to houses of worship deemed historic. The New Jersey Supreme Court had ruled that this type of public assistance to active houses of worship violates the state constitution. That ruling will stand.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that three justices are eager to change the law in this area. Justice Brett Kavanaugh, joined by Justices Samuel A. Alito and Neil Gorsuch, issued a statement indicating that while they agree the time isn’t right to take a case like this right now, they want to see one on the high court’s docket in the future – and they left little doubt about how they’ll rule.

Kavanaugh asserted that the court will eventually have to decide whether the government can deny historical preservation funds to religious organizations “simply because the organizations are religious.” He indicated that denying such aid “would raise serious questions under this Court’s precedents and the Constitution’s fundamental guarantee of equality.”

Actually, the Constitution’s “fundamental guarantee of equality” means that all religious groups have the right to exist in America with no one group getting preferential treatment over others. It says nothing about houses of worship getting access to public funds.

There’s a reason for that: The founders lived during a time when in some states, people were compelled to pay church taxes. In Thomas Jefferson’s home state of Virginia, the Anglican Church was established by law, and everyone had to support it financially – whether they belonged to that denomination or not.

Jefferson knew this was a violation of the fundamental right of conscience. That’s why he wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which disestablished the Anglican Church, ended church taxes and guaranteed everyone the right to worship (or not) as guided by individual conscience. Jefferson’s ally, James Madison, spearheaded the effort to make the bill law in 1785. The Virginia Statute inspired our First Amendment, which also rejects mandatory tax support for religion by guaranteeing that there will be no law “respecting an establishment of religion.”

In America, our tradition, codified by the First Amendment, is that religion must pay its own way. If a church runs into financial difficulties and can’t pay for upkeep of the building, its leadership must try to raise additional funds through private means or secure a loan. Government bail­outs simply are not appropriate.

Kavanaugh, Alito and Gorsuch surely know this history. They have chosen to ignore it. Their view is that government should be able to “help” religion. But if the experience of other Western nations is any guide, that “help” will become a choke-hold that will soon strangle the life and vitality out of our nation’s houses of worship.