No American should be compelled to make financial contributions to religious schools, Americans United told the U.S. Supreme Court in a legal brief filed in November.
AU, joined by 17 other civil rights and religious freedom organizations, urged the high court to respect the traditional American principle of private support for religion.
“The founders believed that it was critical to protect individuals’ freedom of conscience against the coercive extraction of tax funds to support religion,” observes the brief. “They also thought it vital to shield religion and religious institutions from the deleterious effects of governmental support and interference: dependency of religious institutions on the state, compromise of religious beliefs, and strife among religious denominations. They therefore exhorted against public subsidies for religious ministries – including religious education, which is not only a vital function of religious ministries but also essential to generating adherents and maintaining those ministries over time and across communities.”
Americans United filed the brief in a pending case, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue. The high court will hear oral arguments in the case this month. It concerns a Montana program that awarded taxpayer support to religious schools through a tax-credit scheme. In December 2018, the Montana Supreme Court struck down the program, finding that it violated the clear language of the Montana Constitution.
The state’s constitution protects religious freedom by barring “direct or indirect appropriation or payment from any public fund or monies … for any sectarian purpose or to aid any church, school, academy, seminary, college, university, or other literary or scientific institution, controlled in whole or in part by any church, sect, or denomination.”
Religious freedom protection language like this is found in three-quarters of the state constitutions. It’s designed to ensure that no one is taxed, directly or indirectly, to pay for someone else’s religion. These provisions may be wiped out by an adverse ruling in the Espinoza case.
On its “Wall of Separation” blog, Americans United noted that opposition to church taxes, no matter what they may be called or what form they may take, has a long history in the United States. As James Madison once argued, if the government can force you to pay even a minuscule amount to support religion, it can compel you to conform in other ways.
“Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects?” Madison wrote in 1785. “That the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?”
AU also pointed out that there are many reasons to oppose the diversion of taxpayer money to religious schools. The institutions, for example, are often saturated with a particular form of theology throughout the entire curriculum. They may teach creationism in lieu of modern science or faulty “Christian nation” views of American history.
In addition, many religious schools engage in blatant forms of discrimination and may refuse to admit students who are LGBTQ, nontheists or religious minorities. Many apply similar religious litmus tests to faculty and staff. Unlike public schools, which are open to all, religious schools serve a private interest.
Finally, any diversion of taxpayer money to religious schools threatens the public education system. Public schools serve 90 percent of America’s children, and they ought to be our priority when it comes to allocating taxpayer funding.