June 2017 Church & State - June 2017

AU Sounds Alarm Over Supreme Court Case Concerning Tax Funding Of Churches

  AU admin

On April 19, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, a case that threatens to disrupt the healthy distance between church and state when it comes to issues of tax funding.

Backed by Alliance Defending Freedom, a Religious Right legal group, Trinity Lutheran Church sued Missouri officials after the state wouldn’t allow the church to participate in a taxpayer-funded grant program to improve its playground.

Like the majority of U.S. states, Missouri has a provision in its constitution that prohibits government funds from supporting houses of worship. These “no-aid” clauses safeguard religious freedom by ensuring that citizens have freedom of conscience to choose which religions (if any) they will voluntarily support. The provisions also protect faith communities from government discrimination and interference.

A broad ruling by the Supreme Court could require states to ignore their own constitutions and direct taxpayer money to houses of worship. As AU Legislative Director Maggie Garrett noted on AU’s “Wall of Separation” blog, one of the potential outcomes could be permitting states to direct public funding to private religious schools through voucher schemes.

Americans United rallied to raise awareness of this vitally important case. Staff members wrote several posts on the AU blog, including analy­ses from attorneys and information about how newly appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch could affect the case’s outcome.

AU also wrote updates when Missouri’s governor, in blatant disregard of his own state’s constitution, changed the rules days before the case was argued to allow churches to apply for the grant Trinity was denied. AU joined the American Civil Liberties Union to ask the high court to dismiss the case as moot because the governor had provided Trinity with the remedy it was seeking from the court. (The court refused to consider the request.)

All of this information was compiled on a new web page dedicated to the Trinity case; the page included background on the case and op-eds that AU-affiliated faith leaders placed in newspapers around the country. In addition, the group reached out to the media, and AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn appeared on NBC’s “Nightly News” to discuss the case.

AU also mobilized people through social media, utilizing Thunderclap, a social media tool, to broaden the reach of its message and participating in a “tweet storm” on Twitter the morning of the argument. In addition, AU Legal Director Rich­ard B. Katskee and Legal Fellow Carmen Green broadcast a Facebook Live analysis of the case from outside the Supreme Court. Katskee, Green and Lynn were inside the courtroom to hear the arguments.

The Supreme Court is expected to announce its decision by the end of this month. 

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