March 2007 Church & State | Editorial

Religious Right Seeks ‘Faith-Based’ Funding

A recent federal appeals court ruling dealing with the “faith-based” initiative did not get a lot of attention, but it should have. The decision went a long way toward explaining exactly what the Religious Right wants when it comes to the relationship between church and state.

Briefly, officials in Michigan cut off tax funding to Teen Ranch, an evangelical Christian facility for troubled youth. It was determined that staff there were requiring participation in religion and generally running a program saturated in a narrow sectarian perspective.

The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a legal outfit formed by TV preachers, sued, arguing that the state’s failure to fund the ranch was somehow a violation of its religious freedom.

Thankfully, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously rejected this gambit in Teen Ranch v. Udow. But consider the ADF’s argument: The government’s failure to subsidize a religious facility with tax dollars is a violation of that organization’s constitutional rights. In other words, to preserve the religious liberty rights of the ranch, Michigan taxpayers must be compelled to subsidize it.

The ADF and groups like it seek to turn the First Amendment on its head. The religious freedom provisions of that amendment free religious facilities from undue government influence or control, but they in no way guarantee them access to tax funding.

Just the opposite is true. The First Amendment curbs government’s ability to tax people to pay for the propagation of religion. To be truly free, faith must never be shackled to the power of the state. Religious entities enjoy the right to raise money through voluntary donations; they cannot expect to lean on the government for support.

 Behind their benign-sounding claims of supporting religious liberty, groups like the ADF harbor an insidious agenda: state-supported religion. Under their legal theory, if the government gives grants to private secular organizations, it must also give them to religious ones. Thus religion becomes just another vehicle for government funding – and eventually government control.

The 6th Circuit was on guard to this menace, but we must remain alert. Some people in powerful places have been seduced by the ADF’s view. These people do not seem to understand or care that a conception of religious freedom that requires the state to fund and promote religion is not religious freedom at all. It is something alien to our Constitution, a malignant force that will end up throttling true religious liberty in the end.