To avoid government meddling, the state should not fund churches

A school bus arrives at Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Mo., on the morning of Oct. 18, 2016. RNS photo by Sally Morrow

(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 the preservation of religious freedom.

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

The court should reject arguments that a state must fund a church’s capital improvements because the program’s goals are environmental, not religious, and because the building materials are not inherently religious. Surely, the state does not have to build churches, even if it only uses “secular” building materials.

It also shouldn’t be taken at face value that any part of the church, such as the playground in this case, has nothing to do with religion. Biblical lessons in kindness, caring and sharing are certainly a focus for church preschool workers who supervise children as they play together and take turns on the swings and slides.

Even if a church seeks to divide its property into religious and secular areas to gain access to a grant, the government should not be required to adopt a policy that encourages such arrangements and requires the state to verify them.

The notion that the state’s line-drawing is in any way hostile to religion flies in the face of history and common sense. To avoid unconstitutionally funding religion or unnecessarily meddling in church affairs, Missouri has in the past wisely chosen to prohibit state funding of churches altogether.

Questions from the justices at oral argument of the case show just how hard it is to find a workable and constitutional line that is not a bright-line prohibition on aid to churches.

It is too soon to know the scope and ramifications of the governor’s new policy to allow churches to get government aid or what the court will decide.

The change could very well subject churches to more government oversight and intrusion, as well as subject the state to litigation for violating its own constitution. The governor’s abrupt change of policy seems shortsighted, and its effect on this dispute may pale in comparison to the damage it will do to religious liberty.

(Holly Hollman is general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and filed an amicus brief in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer)

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Holly Hollman


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  • At least for the time being, I would also agree that churches do not accept funds from the government IF they come with strings attached that could compromise what they believe, how they live their faith. There is too much “social justice” idiocy still teeming in society that could mandate churches go against their faith/beliefs. It is better to be a poor church and holy, than have funds and no longer serve God.

  • And the quick solution to an unnecessary but continuous problem?

    Putting the kibosh on all religion in less than ten seconds: Priceless !!!

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Abraham i.e. the foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are non-existent.

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Moses i.e the pillars of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have no strength of purpose.

    • There was no Gabriel i.e. Islam fails as a religion. Christianity partially fails.

    • There was no Easter i.e. Christianity completely fails as a religion.

    • There was no Moroni i.e. Mormonism is nothing more than a business cult.

    • Sacred/revered cows, monkey gods, castes, reincarnations and therefore Hinduism fails as a religion.

    • Fat Buddhas here, skinny Buddhas there, reincarnated/reborn Buddhas everywhere makes for a no on Buddhism.

    –A constant cycle of reincarnation until enlightenment is reached and belief that various beings (angels?, tinker bells? etc) exist that we, as mortals, cannot comprehend makes for a no on Sikhism.

    ADDED DETAILS available upon written request.

    A quick search will put the kibosh on any other groups calling themselves a religion.

    e.g. Taoism

    “The origins of Taoism are unclear. Traditionally, Lao-tzu who lived in the sixth century is regarded as its founder. Its early philosophic foundations and its later beliefs and rituals are two completely different ways of life. Today (1982) Taoism claims 31,286,000 followers.

    Legend says that Lao-tzu was immaculately conceived by a shooting star; carried in his mother’s womb for eighty-two years; and born a full grown wise old man. “

  • Yet the churches who share your belief are the ones most likely to demand government funding. To demand government submit to their beliefs and compromise it’s principles of civil liberties to all its citizens.

  • As far as one knows or can tell, there’s no Rational Conclusions–neither a person by that name, nor an athiest group, nor ANY conclusions–rational or otherwise–to be drawn from this pointless drivel! (There, that took only FIVE SECONDS! Priceless!!!)

  • OK, let me get this straight: our esteemed attorney-writer here, insists that government should fund NO religious activity of any kind, because it would set a dangerous precident to spend a few hundred bucks on paving a children’s playground at a church that is NOT functioning as a worship or educational center on weekdays and during daytime hours! I fail to see how four-year-old children singing a few little religious ditties and saying Grace before consuming their sandwiches, cookies and koolaid, could be considered offensive to the august principle of separation of church and state! (aren’t you glad that more people think like lawyers?!)

    If one wants to split hairs over this, then consider that it’s doubtful the children using the playground are going to become brainwashed during those short breaks! The playtime focus is on friendship and fun, not the serious business of religious indoctrination!

  • What is the meaning of the Constitution’s religion clauses? Let us study the history of its ideas.
    “Many of the British North American colonies that eventually formed the United States of America were settled in the seventeenth century by men and women, who, in the face of European persecution, refused to compromise passionately held religious convictions and fled Europe.” The non-partisan Library of Congress has provided this excellent study on the history of religion in the U.S.


    “Puritans were English Protestants who wished to reform and purify the Church of England of what they considered to be unacceptable residues of Roman Catholicism.” But the “ESTABLISHED” state church, the Church of England, persecuted the Puritans. “Zealous Puritan laymen received savage punishments. For example, in 1630 a man was sentenced to life imprisonment, had his property confiscated, his nose slit, an ear cut off, and his forehead branded “S.S.” (sower of sedition)…Beginning in 1630 as many as 20,000 Puritans emigrated to America from England to gain the liberty to worship God as they chose.”

    However, some of the persecuted became persecutors in America. Some Christian sects (denominations) tried to “ESTABLISH” their sect as the state church and make citizens pay a specific fee to support the state church.


    When the Constitution was written in 1787, a bill of rights was rejected, and George Mason (who wrote the Bill of Rights for the 1776 Virginia Constitution) urged the states to insist that a Bill of Rights be considered by the next national congress. The fear of a national, established church (like the Church of England) prompted the form of the religious freedom amendment as presented by James Madison to the new Congress:”The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any NATIONAL RELIGION be ESTABLISHED, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext, infringed.”


    The final form was summarized and stylized as: “Congress shall make no law respecting an ESTABLISHMENT of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”


    And what does the historical context tell us about its application and meaning?

    “It is no exaggeration to say that on Sundays in Washington during the administrations of Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809) and of James Madison (1809-1817) the state became the church. Within a year of his inauguration, Jefferson began attending church services in the House of Representatives. Madison followed Jefferson’s example, although unlike Jefferson, who rode on horseback to church in the Capitol, Madison came in a coach and four. Worship services in the House–a practice that continued until after the Civil War–were acceptable to Jefferson because they were nondiscriminatory and voluntary. Preachers of every Protestant denomination appeared. (Catholic priests began officiating in 1826.) As early as January 1806 a female evangelist, Dorothy Ripley, delivered a camp meeting-style exhortation in the House to Jefferson, Vice President Aaron Burr, and a “crowded audience.” Throughout his administration Jefferson permitted church services in executive branch buildings. The Gospel was also preached in the Supreme Court chambers.”

    “Jefferson’s actions may seem surprising because his attitude toward the relation between religion and government is usually thought to have been embodied in his recommendation that there exist “a wall of separation between church and state.” In that statement, Jefferson was apparently declaring his opposition, as Madison had done in introducing the Bill of Rights, to a “national” religion. In attending church services on public property, Jefferson and Madison consciously and deliberately were offering symbolic support to religion as a prop for republican government.”


    The notion that the state or federal government must not supply equal consideration to a church’s playground is a modern myth propagated by those who wish to restrict the equal treatment of churches and their property outside the sanctuary.

  • Added details as requested:

    origin: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F20E1EFE35540C7A8CDDAA0894DA404482

    NY Times review and important enough to reiterate.

    Torah For Modern Minds

    “Abraham, the Jewish patriarch, probably never existed. Nor did Moses. (prob·a·bly


    Almost certainly; as far
    as one knows or can tell).

    The entire Exodus story as recounted in the Bible probably never occurred. The same is true of the tumbling of the walls of Jericho. And David, far from being the fearless king who built Jerusalem into a mighty capital, was more likely a provincial leader whose reputation was later magnified to provide a rallying point for a fledgling

    The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents the 1.5 million
    Conservative Jews in the United States, has just issued a new Torah and
    commentary, the first for Conservatives in more than 60 years. Called ”Etz
    Hayim” (”Tree of Life” in Hebrew), it offers an interpretation that
    incorporates the latest findings from archaeology, philology, anthropology and
    the study of ancient cultures. To the editors who worked on the book, it
    represents one of the boldest efforts ever to introduce into the religious
    mainstream a view of the Bible as a human rather than divine document.

    notion that the Bible is not literally true ”is more or less settled and
    understood among most Conservative rabbis,” observed David Wolpe, a rabbi at
    Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and a contributor to ”Etz Hayim.” But some
    congregants, he said, ”may not like the stark airing of it.” Last Passover,
    in a sermon to 2,200 congregants at his synagogue, Rabbi Wolpe frankly said
    that ”virtually every modern archaeologist” agrees ”that the way the Bible
    describes the Exodus is not the way that it happened, if it happened at all.”
    The rabbi offered what he called a ”LITANY OF DISILLUSION”’
    about the narrative, including contradictions, improbabilities, chronological
    lapses and the absence of corroborating evidence. In fact, he said,
    archaeologists digging in the Sinai have ”found no trace of the tribes of
    Israel — not one shard of pottery.”

  • http://www.pantheon.org/articles/a/angels.html


    “This belief in guardian angels can be traced
    throughout all antiquity; pagans, like Menander and Plutarch (cf. Euseb.,
    “Praep. Evang.”, xii), and Neo-Platonists, like Plotinus, held it. It
    was also the belief of the Babylonians and Assyrians, as their monuments
    testify, for a figure of a guardian angel now in the British Museum once
    decorated an Assyrian palace, and might well serve for a modern representation;
    while Nabopolassar, father of Nebuchadnezzar the Great, says: “He (Marduk)
    sent a tutelary deity (cherub) of grace to go at my side; in everything that I
    did, he made my work to succeed.”


    “The beginnings of the biblical belief in angels must
    be sought in very early folklore. The gods of the Hittites and Canaanites had
    their supernatural messengers, and parallels to the Old Testament stories of
    angels are found in Near Eastern literature. ”

    “The ‘Magic Papyri’ contain many spells to secure just
    such help and protection of angels. From magic traditions arose the concept of
    the guardian angel. ”


    “TUBUAS-A member of the group of angels who were
    removed from the ranks of officially recognized celestial hierarchy in 745 by a
    council in Rome under Pope Zachary. He was joined by Uriel, Adimus, Sabaoth,
    Simiel, and Raguel.”

  • Spammer says wut?

    You cite the Puritans, but not those fleeing the 17th Century Christian Taliban they were. Such as Roger Williams. The man whose writings put forth the idea of the separation of church and state. A very interesting omission when one talks about how established religion was views.

    Aaron, just be honest and declare your open hostility to religious freedom in all of its forms. You can’t pretend free exercise of religion can exist without the separation of church and state.

  • And this is why SCOTUS rejected the religious freedom arguments on both sides in the playground case. Seeing it more of a secular public safety issue than anything else.

  • This article is very well done. Thank you, Holly Hollman.

    The governor of Missouri has, indeed, stepped onto dangerous ground.

    I wish Trinity Lutheran Church well in establishing a play ground and programs for children. But they should do it on their own dollar. They can support the effort to make better use of old tires, encourage recycling by buying the materials for their own playground. But they should not be given tax dollars in order to build or improve property owned by them and used as part of their religious outreach.

  • Never trust the government to do the right thing. There is no reason states can’t support churches just like they support and don’t interfere with the LGBT, PLANNED PARENTHOOD, BERKELEY COLLEGE AND OTHER RADICAL SCHOOLS.

  • Do you have anything that is not from anti-Christian left leaning opinionated resource?

  • End the brainwashing since birth, read the truth via rigorous historic studies conducted by the likes of Professors Crossan and Ludemann and get back to us when you are finished

  • Tis called NT brainwash. Might want to explore outside the trap you were probably born in.

  • It’s a shame that your point is so ignorant that you assumed I was raised a Christian when the fact is I choose to be a Christian as a young adult. So I chose not to participate in that trap you so love and cherish anymore.

  • “Probably” covers many time periods. Recommend the book “Who is Jesus” by Crossan if you ever want to peruse your beliefs.

  • Again I have studied my faith from all aspects and nothing has yet turned me from it. Perhaps you should study all the archeological finds in the middle east that have proven the bible more accurate than any history book that exists?

  • Please provide references from qualified researchers as to archeological finds in the Middle East that prove that the bible is more accurate than any history book. Here is one study from qualified researchers that put said finds into perspective:

    Professor Crossan’s “Excavating Jesus” (with Professor Jonathan Reed doing the archeology discussion.)

  • Again I don’t read anti-Christian rhetoric knowing Jesus is a documented historical character and I’m nothing like you that seeks things to prove the Christian faith is false but I did much research on the matter before I became a Christian as apparently you did just the opposite. As for Jesus being a real person…..http://gnli.christianpost.com/video/non-biblical-evidence-as-proof-for-jesus-christ-1-of-4.html

    As for archeological proof you need to do your own homework because there have been several discovery’s in the last few years one being on King Hezekiah and the other being Joseph ruling Egypt.