To avoid government meddling, the state should not fund churches

(RNS) After a year of anticipation, the Supreme Court heard oral argument this week in a case involving religious liberty, federalism and original intent. The justices did so despite a recent development that changed the dynamics of the dispute.  

Last Thursday (April 13), less than a week before the justices heard argument in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, the new governor of Missouri announced a policy change that would allow state aid to flow to houses of worship.

This created uncertainty as to whether Trinity Lutheran even has a claim for the court to decide. 

Before Thursday, Missouri state policy didn’t allow tax dollars to be used to improve church properties. Its constitution, like those of 38 other states, prohibits government aid to churches (and other houses of worship). That’s a good rule for both church and state, consistent with our country’s fundamental commitment to religious liberty. This bedrock principle survives any decision by a single political actor.

Trinity Lutheran’s side of the case. RNS video by Sally Morrow

Churches are organized specifically for religious purposes, such as worship, teaching and spreading the faith. They are the quintessential expressions of religion. A fundamental value of our constitutional tradition is to avoid government funding of religion and allow religion to flourish on its own.

By drawing a bright line to keep the institutions of government separate from churches, Missouri recognized for nearly 200 years the special status of churches and showed respect for religion.

Trinity Lutheran Church sued when it was denied a chance to participate in a small, discretionary funding program aimed at reducing landfill waste by encouraging the use of scrap tire material for playground surfaces. Missouri designed the environmental program consistent with state policy to avoid funding religion. Trinity Lutheran argued that the court should force Missouri to ignore its own state constitution and spend tax dollars to improve the church’s property.

Far from a mark of discrimination against religion, this bright-line rule reflects a core concern for religious liberty — keeping government out of religion. The founders were familiar with the perils of using taxation to support religion. Avoiding tax support for churches and ministers was a key focus in the fights for disestablishment of religion.

Missouri’s no-aid provisions date to 1820 and mirror language in Thomas Jefferson’s famous Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, a precursor to the First Amendment.

While government and churches have changed a lot since the founding era, religious liberty is still best protected by separating the institutions of religion and government and avoiding government sponsorship of religion. This is not simply a matter of history or originalism. Churches continue to be treated as special legal entities, exempt from many rules and regulations out of respect for doctrine, church autonomy and…

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