Before the United States was the United States, church-state relations varied from colony to colony.
Some colonies had established churches, and some did not. In those that did, the issue that tended to drive people to push for separation of church and state was mandatory tax support for religion.
After the Revolution, people still riled at the idea that they would be forced to give financial support to a religion that was not their own. In 1785, when Patrick Henry proposed taxing the people of Virginia to pay for “teachers of the Christian religion,” the backlash was swift. James Madison led the fight to stop it – and he was backed by several religious groups.
Madison penned the “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments.” In this context, “assessment” means “tax,” and Madison’s document is a list of 15 reasons why no one should have to pay church taxes.
There are many good arguments in Madison’s Memorial, but one of the best is found in his third point: “Who does not see 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?”
In other words, the same government that can force you to pay a few bucks to keep up a church can also force you to pay more than a few bucks or to support that church in other ways.
Thanks to Madison’s handiwork, Henry’s bill was defeated. Instead, Virginia legislators passed Thomas Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom, which states in part, “[N]o man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever…”
The evidence is clear that the framers of our Constitution viewed compulsory support for religion as a great evil, something to be avoided in a free nation.
It is remarkable, therefore, to see the U.S. Supreme Court flirting with the idea of establishing that very thing – forced taxpayer support for houses of worship.
A case is currently pending before the court called Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer. It concerns a church in Missouri that sought a state grant to purchase material made from recycled tires to surface the playground of its religious preschool.
Missouri’s constitution, like the constitutions of most of the states, contains a provision banning the diversion of tax money to religious groups. Such “no-aid” amendments reflect the original concern of Jefferson and Madison that no citizen should be forced to pay for someone else’s religion.
Missouri officials denied the grant. The church, backed by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a Religious Right legal group, sued. ADF is arguing that the state’s refusal to give the church access to taxpayer money is a form of discrimination.
ADF has mounted a slick public-relations campaign featuring sweet little children who just want to frolic safely in their playground. But this case is not about children, and it’s not about playgrounds. It is about compulsory support for a house of worship.
If Trinity Lutheran wants to spruce up its playground, it has options. Chiefly, it can do what any other church in America would do: ask its members to pay for it. Believers in the church’s mission provided the funds that built the actual church, and their donations pay for its ongoing upkeep; they can surely come up with the funds to resurface a playground.
So what’s really going on here? ADF and its allies despise the separation of church and state and have worked for years to weaken that principle in the courts. If they succeed in winning a high court ruling that has the effect of nullifying the “no-aid” provisions that exist in 39 state constitutions, they will have struck a mighty blow against the church-state wall.
Ironically, it’s religion they’ll be hurting. Faith groups have done very well in the United States, where the voluntary principle reigns. Americans have chosen to open their wallets and voluntarily give to the wide range of religious groups that exist in this country. Houses of worship have done just fine without taxpayer support.
Compare our situation to many nations in Europe, and particularly in Scandinavia, where taxpayer support for churches still exists. The churches are limping along, tethered to their state subsidies. The people long ago lost interest in taxpayer-supported churches, and these institutions are devitalized.
Why any religious person would want to risk bringing that system here is a mystery. Why the Supreme Court would entertain it for even a minute is an even bigger one.