In 1811, Congress passed a bill that would have given an Episcopal church in Washington, D.C., an official incorporation and a charge to care for the poor. When the bill reached the desk of President James Madison, he knew just what to do: reach for a pen and veto it.
The bill, Madison wrote in a veto message, “exceeds the rightful authority to which governments are limited, by the essential distinction between civil and religious functions, and violates, in particular, the article of the Constitution of the United States, which declares, that ‘Congress shall make no law respecting a religious establishment.’”
The proposed legislation didn’t provide any public money to the church, but Madison still saw it as problematic. It was a symbolic union of church and state, and that was enough for Madison (who was a primary author of the First Amendment) to reject it.
Unfortunately, our country has drifted far from Madison’s vision. The Supreme Court in June issued a ruling stating, for the first time, that there are conditions under which houses of worship are legally entitled to receive taxpayer support.
It’s important to understand that this case has nothing do with the basic public services that all entities, including religious ones, are entitled to receive. When a church catches on fire, a municipal fire department puts it out because a burning building is a threat to everyone’s health and safety.
In this case, Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, a Lutheran church in Columbia, Mo., sought taxpayer aid to resurface its preschool’s playground with material made from recycled tires. This beautification project benefited only the church. Not so long ago, it would have been unthinkable for a house of worship to demand public support to spruce up its physical facilities – and it would have been unthinkable for our nation’s highest court to grant it.
For decades, Religious Right activists and some misguided clerics have pushed for a policy whereby the state extends public aid to houses of worship as long as a thin “secular” purpose is first conjured up.
The religious groups that pushed for this scheme had different motivations. The Religious Right simply hates separation of church and state and was willing to do anything to weaken that principle. Others, such as the Roman Catholic hierarchy, sought to secure tax funding to prop up the church’s private school system.
Presidents Ronald W. Reagan, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush and now Donald J. Trump appointed jurists sympathetic to this point of view to the Supreme Court and lower federal courts. Over the years, they began to chip away at the church-state wall.
They began by declaring that in certain cases, such as private school vouchers, it was permissible to steer tax aid to religious schools as long as they were part of an array of educational options. Now, with the ruling in Trinity Lutheran, we see the high court inching toward the next dangerous step: not only may taxpayer aid be extended to houses of worship, sometimes it must be.
The lead opinion in the case, written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, contains a footnote asserting that the ruling is limited to this particular set of facts. The footnote may provide a firewall for now, but it’s clear that if there are more changes on the court, other schemes to direct tax money to religion will get a blessing.
At worst, the high court could obliterate language in more than 35 state constitutions that explicitly bars the diversion of tax money to houses of worship. Missouri has language like that and cited it when it denied public support to Trinity Lutheran. The justices ignored it.
The irony is, houses of worship will suffer in the long run from this new policy. Religious groups in America have grown and prospered precisely because of the separation of church and state, not in spite of it. Houses of worship have traditionally looked to their own members for support, and they’ve done quite well.
Government funding, by contrast, tends to lead religious communities to become devitalized – in modern Western nations, at least. After all, why should people donate if their taxes are already taking care of things?
Our First Amendment means that houses of worship must stand on their own two feet. They must pay for their own maintenance, repair and upkeep. In return, the state doesn’t interfere in their internal workings.
The leaders of Trinity Lutheran put that principle in jeopardy because they wanted the taxpayers to foot the bill for a large piece of rubber.
It was a foolish move, and religious groups may pay the consequences for it.