Two hundred thirty-five years ago, James Madison warned that if a government can tax you only “three pence” to support faith, it can compel you to submit to a religion that is not your own in many other ways.
Madison’s admonition is found in his “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments,” a classic text that lists 15 reasons why no one should be forced to support a faith against his or her will.
Madison’s arguments are just as fresh today as they were in 1785. Sadly, the U.S. Supreme Court is turning its back on them, and indeed on the very legacy of Madison.
This month the high court will hear oral arguments in a case called Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue. The justices will consider an appeal of a ruling handed down in December 2018 by the Montana Supreme Court. In its ruling, the state high court struck down a private school voucher program that used tax credits to divert public funds to private religious schools, finding that it violated the plain language of the Montana Constitution.
That document is clear. It bars “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.”
If the U.S. Supreme Court overturns that ruling, it could have dire consequences. States may actually be compelled to support private religious education in some cases. A broad ruling could also invalidate religious freedom provisions like Montana’s that exist in about three-quarters of the state constitutions.
The federal high court, in a misguided ruling from 2002, declared that private school vouchers don’t violate church-state separation. Since then, Americans United and other organizations have successfully defeated vouchers in several states by citing the state constitutional provisions. If those are obliterated, that line of defense will be lost to us.
It’s remarkable that our country even finds itself in this place. One thing is clear from history: opposition to church taxes propelled much of the push for separation of church and state in colonial America. Put simply, people were fed up with being required to support houses of worship they did not belong to and in some cases strongly disagreed with.
Church-state separation, so eloquently explained by Madison in his “Memorial and Remonstrance,” is designed to protect people from forced support for religion, which Madison correctly labeled tyranny.
“What influence in fact have ecclesiastical establishments had on Civil Society?” queried Madison. “In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the Civil authority; in many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny: in no instance have they been seen the guardians of the liberties of the people.”
The “ecclesiastical establishments” Madison was referring to often took the form of church taxes. Vouchers, tax credits and other forms of public aid to religious schools are modern versions of the church taxes of Madison’s day. These plans take money from everyone and turn it over to religious leaders who use it to boost schools that have the primary aim of promoting narrow sectarian doctrines and dogma. These schools saturate their classes with certain faith perspectives and often teach things that are controversial or untrue (such as creationism) or offensive (such as anti-woman and/or anti-LGBTQ views).
Madison and other founders knew their history and were aware of the harsh lesson it taught: that government support for religion fostered division, resentment and even violence. Their answer was to end compelled support for faith and allow every citizen to decide for himself or herself which faith, if any, to support.
Applying Madison’s principles today would mean ensuring that church-run schools rely on purely voluntary support. The state would not interfere with their operations (except in extreme cases where children were in danger of abuse or neglect), nor would it subsidize them. In short, church schools would be considered the same as churches – they’d be built, maintained and supported by the people who belong to them.
That system has worked well for us. It has allowed houses of worship to flourish in America. Yet thanks to the ultraconservative stamp put on the Supreme Court in large part by President Donald Trump, we may be on the verge of blithely tossing it aside.
Madison warned us about the dangers of mandatory support for religion 235 years ago. We need to listen.