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By Simon Brown
Four years ago, officials at Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Mo., decided they would like to resurface a playground at the church’s religious preschool – and that taxpayers should pick up the tab for it.
Under a state program, aid was available for such projects through a program that awarded grants to purchase recycled tires – but not for houses of worship. The church sued, and its attorneys at Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a large Religious Right group, made a startling claim: The church has a constitutional right to taxpayer support.
“Missouri and every state should understand that the U.S. Constitution prohibits religious hostility, which is what Missouri exhibited when it denied Trinity Lutheran’s scrap tire grant application,” Erik Stanley, an ADF attorney, said in a recent statement. “This case has huge implications for state constitutional provisions across the nation that treat religious Americans and organizations as inferiors solely because of their religious identity.”
Far from a frivolous squabble over old tires, the case could, if the Religious Right has its way, become a blockbuster that dramatically impacts how religion and government interact when it comes to taxpayer assistance.
The U.S. Supreme Court in January announced that it will hear an appeal of the case, Trinity Lutheran Church v. Pauley. The ramifications could reach far beyond a playground in Missouri.
At the heart of this case is Article I, Section 7 of the Missouri Constitution, which states: “[N]o money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect or denomination of religion, or in aid of any priest, preacher, minister or teacher thereof” and that “no preference shall be given to nor any discrimination made against any church, sect, or creed of religion, or any form of religious faith or worship.”
That type of provision, often referred to as a “no-aid” clause, is not unusual. In fact, about three-fourths of the states have them. These clauses reflect a longstanding concern in the United States that religion should pay its own way and not rely on taxpayer support.
In 1785, for example, James Madison wrote the “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments,” essentially a list of 15 reasons why no one should be forced to pay taxes to support churches.
Language that reflected the spirit of Madison’s concerns found its way into many state constitutions. The move accelerated in the post-Civil War era as public education took hold in the United States.
Massachusetts and New York passed the first mandatory school attendance laws in 1852 and 1853 respectively, but the drive didn’t really take off until after the war. By 1918, all states then in existence had some sort of compulsory attendance law.
Even then lawmakers were being lobbied by religious school advocates who hoped to win government support for their private institutions. As early as 1838, a Roman Catholic official in New York sought government subsidies for Catholic schools. Bishop John Hughes insisted that existing public schools were infused with Protestantism, making them unsuitable for Catholic students, and thus Catholic schools should receive subsidies from the state.
Some political leaders of the time proposed removing the “non-denominational” Protestant exercises that then occurred in some public schools to make them more tolerable to Catholics. In 1875, President Ulysses S. Grant went so far as to back an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would require states to maintain a secular public-school system and prohibit tax aid for religious schools.
A version of Grant’s amendment was introduced in Congress by James G. Blaine, who was then Speaker of the House of Representatives. A Maine Republican, Blaine pushed an amendment that focused on barring tax aid to sectarian institutions. The amendment would eventually pass the House, but it fell short in the U.S. Senate.
In the modern era, the push for what became known as the “Blaine Amendment” is often portrayed as an anti-Catholic crusade. The truth is much more complicated. While a certain degree of anti-Catholicism was prevalent in the United States during the 19th century, there is no evidence that Blaine himself was personally anti-Catholic. (He was a nominal Presbyterian, but his mother was Catholic and he sent his daughters to a Catholic-run boarding school.)
Clauses prohibiting public funding of religious schools were included in the constitutions of several Western states, though some of these clauses had language significantly different from that of Blaine’s proposed amendment. All these clauses were designed to underscore the point that in America, religion had to finance itself. There could be nothing like church taxes in the United States.
Despite this history, advocates of government aid to religion continue to attack state no-aid provisions as anti-Catholic – even though they are applied equally to all religions. The same amendment that bans aid to a Catholic school also bars it to Baptist, Jewish and Muslim institutions.