A Secular State: Why the Trinity Case Matters.

by Amanda Luketich

December 16, 2016

Cover Photo Credits

One of the most interesting cases awaiting the Supreme Court on this year’s docket is Trinity Lutheran V Pauly. Trinity Church is contesting an amendment to the Constitution of Missouri that prohibits state aid directly or indirectly benefiting religious organizations. Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia was denied government assistance to purchase rubberized material for their preschool playground. This case will test if state governments have the authority to prohibit such funds from being distributed to religious organizations. Ultimately, though, the state’s decision to forbid financial support from being provided to religious organizations was the right one. The U.S. Constitution calls for a clear separation between church and state. That separation is essential to maintaining a fair, impartial, and secular government.

Advocates for Trinity have argued that the church is made up of individuals who pay their taxes. According to this line of thinking, religious organizations should have the same access to public funds as secular institutions. Categorically denying religious organizations funding is the same as categorically denying an individual access to a public welfare or aid solely based on their religious affiliation. Simply put, this is a false equivalency. Individuals do not enjoy the same benefits as religious organizations.

Religious organizations already enjoy many government benefits, especially exemptions from taxes and employment discrimination laws. They cannot decry the need to be treated equally with other nonprofits in terms of receiving state funding because they receive specialized treatment that other nonprofits do not. Churches are unlikely to relinquish their special exemptions, meaning any additional support they receive will only further separate them from secular organizations and individual taxpayers.

Special tax status is, in fact, an essential aspect of organized religion in the United States. Ignoring that fact seriously undermines any argument that can be made for Trinity. Religious institutions that become eligible to receive state funding will compete for already scarce resources. They will however, not be viewed as equal competitors. Religious institutions will have the “safety net” of special privileges to protect them from government regulation. This is an unfair advantage, and an easily avoidable scenario.

If religious institutions want to rescind their special tax status in favor of other benefits, they are well within their rights to do so. Because of their unique position, religious organizations cannot claim discrimination under the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. If anything, secular organizations forced to compete with religious organizations for state aid could claim an inherent disadvantage. The idea that religious organizations should enjoy access to all available funds from all sources is unfair to other competitors for those funds and inches the needle uncomfortably close to explicitly state-funded religion.

Moreover, all government funding is a tax subsidy. Missouri’s decision to withhold the state grant to Trinity does not impede on the church’s ability to make playground renovations or practice their religion freely. It is a just and reasonable refusal to provide money from the unaffiliated citizens of the United States to a religious organization. The U.S. Constitution outlines the separation of church and state. Because the U.S. government is a federalist system, and each state is a sovereign entity, they can create laws to enhance this separation, as long as they do not violate the 14th amendment or any other federal regulations. Therefore, states have the right to deny funding to religious organizations.

Denying funding to an organization based on religion is not the same as discrimination on the basis of religion. In fact, it is a safeguard against potential discrimination. The secular government works to help all people, regardless of their worldview or spiritual persuasion. Non-religious organizations often help a broader audience than religious organizations, and do not discriminate based on religious beliefs. Unlike religious organizations promoting theology, secular non-profits are working to promote a non-qualified common good. If it is so essential to a religious organization to provide assistance to those in need, then they can simply create a non-religious organization to provide services, and should be willing to forgo their special status in exchange for a different set of benefits.

There is no clear and safe way to separate religion and state. Providing state assistance to religious organizations in any form helps to maintain the religious aspect of the organization because the organizations are defined by their religion. There are already federal constitutional restrictions in place that legally prohibit the government from creating laws that interfere with religion. The most ubiquitous protection comes from the first amendment, which states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”, further enhanced by the Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause. That should not be a one way street.  

Religious organizations are often directly governed by beliefs that are not intertwined with the interests of United States, regardless of whether the government and religious institution’s goals coincide. In Trinity’s case, the preschool in charge of the playground does not protect against discrimination based on religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity. There is no way to ensure state aid would not assist Trinity in potential discrimination. All citizens should have the right to access services without the fear of prejudicial treatment. Religious organizations cannot be counted on, nor even expected to, provide neutral access to services given their potential to discriminate on criteria that is arbitrary and unregulated.

Forbidding religious organizations from receiving state funding does not impede on anyone’s ability to freely practice their religion. At its core, the Establishment Clause forbids the government to use compulsorily collected taxes to support any religion. This protects citizens from the discrimination of churches, and allows all citizens to receive the secular government services they are owed. It also protects churches by not allowing the state to favor one religion over another through monetary support or recognition . Just as we are allowed the right to religious freedom, we should be allowed the freedom from religion in all government funded services. To maintain the integrity of the Constitution, and the U.S. as a whole, the Supreme Court should rule in favor of the state of Missouri.

Amanda Luketich is a 1st year MPP student at the College of William & Mary and an Associate Editor of the William & Mary Policy Review.