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In America, religious groups should pay their own way

(RNS) A pending case at the U.S. Supreme Court could dramatically affect the religious freedom of all Americans.

Children play on a gravel playground at Trinity Lutheran Church’s Child Learning Center in Columbia, Mo., on Oct. 18, 2016. RNS photo by Sally Morrow

(RNS) A pending case at the U.S. Supreme Court could dramatically affect the religious freedom of all Americans.

The case, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, is scheduled to be argued before the Supreme Court on Wednesday (April 19). It concerns a church in Missouri that sued state officials because the state refused to pay to resurface the church’s playground.

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

Missouri’s constitution, like the majority of state constitutions, contains language restricting taxpayer support of religious institutions — a protection that keeps a healthy distance between church and state. Lower courts have ruled that Missouri officials could decline to provide government funds to the church, but Trinity Lutheran has appealed to the Supreme Court.

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Just last week, Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens took the extraordinary step of announcing houses of worship now will be eligible for the very type of funding that was denied to Trinity Lutheran in 2012. It’s unclear how the Supreme Court will react to this 11th-hour maneuver, but Greitens’ action should render the case moot. The governor has handed the church the very remedy it is seeking at the Supreme Court: eligibility for taxpayer money.

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Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens

Yet Greitens’ action is troubling. He is imperiling the religious freedom of both his state’s churches and his citizens. For more than 200 years, houses of worship in America have successfully relied on contributions given voluntarily by members and supporters. This arrangement has done wonders for religion in America. Voluntary funding has created a robust, diverse faith community.

By contrast, taxpayer funding of churches is extremely problematic for a number of reasons. For starters, it violates the fundamental right of conscience to compel people to support a religion with which they don’t agree. Anger over compulsory support for ministers and churches led to the creation of the principle of separation of church and state by statesmen like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. We shouldn’t return to a system that our founders found antithetical to liberty.

Rev. Barry Lynn says religious groups should pay their own way. Video courtesy of Americans United

Taxpayer funding of religion also is a recipe for discrimination. Government is bound to play favorites in deciding which churches get funding. At the same time, congregations could end up compromising their spiritual beliefs for fear that criticism of government officials would negatively impact their funding stream. And faith leaders may even find themselves enmeshed in politics, as congregations are tempted to support those politicians who promise to direct money the churches’ way.

And with government money comes government oversight. Once houses of worship begin accepting taxpayer dollars, they must be accountable to the taxpayers for how that money is spent. Churches currently are free from such financial oversight and government entanglement — why change that?

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The principle of church-state separation has protected religious freedom since the founding of our country. We’re allowed to choose our religious beliefs as our consciences dictate and worship accordingly without government interference. We all are able to choose which churches and charities we support through our deeds and donations, and we don’t have to worry about our tax dollars supporting religious missions we may not believe in. The Trinity Lutheran case seeks to upend a system of proven worth and replace it with a modern form of church taxes.

A general view of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 5, 2004. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons/Duncan Lock

Trinity Lutheran Church may be in Missouri, but the impact of the Supreme Court’s decision — assuming that the court doesn’t dismiss the case as moot — could be felt across the country because three-quarters of the states have constitutional provisions like Missouri’s. A broad ruling by the Supreme Court could require states to ignore their own constitutions and direct taxpayer money to churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship — opening a Pandora’s box that puts our religious freedom at risk.

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I’m not alone in my fears – like Americans United for Separation of Church and State, nearly 20 civil liberties and faith-based organizations submitted or joined legal briefs asking the Supreme Court to uphold Missouri’s right to refuse to fund religious groups.

These groups are speaking out because they know that voluntary support for religion has served our nation well. Both freedom of conscience and church autonomy stand to lose if the Supreme Court tosses that principle aside.

(The Rev. Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State)