I’m seeing a lot about the case of Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, the case about to go before the SCOTUS. The background of the case regards grants given to non-profit tax-exempt schools to improve the safety of their playgrounds. Trinity Lutheran School applied and, I read, their application ranked 5 out of the thirty-something received, with 14 grants available. They were rejected because Missouri, like 38 other states, has a Blaine amendment in its constitution that forbids the direct funding of religious institutions. These amendments are a relic of an attempt to add such an amendment to the US constitution. Part (though not all) of the motivation for these amendments was anti-Catholic and anti-Immigrant sentiment at a time when public schools across the country were basically Protestant parochial schools and often centers of “Americanization.”

The case is interesting for a number of reasons, and touches on several issues I’ve been reflecting on for some time.

First the main issues that people are writing about:

  • Can a state constitution go beyond the United States Constitution in restricting something, in this case, can a state constitution more narrowly define what constitutes establishment. I don’t know if it will have direct bearing on the case, but this reminds me that the Tennessee constitution had a provision that forbade clergy from holding elected office, which was found unconstitutional in 1978 (the last state to have one).
  • Related to the first, is it religious discrimination or does it burden free exercise to exclude some tax-exempt/non-profit organizations from such grants because of their religious identity.

I think these questions are worth asking. The list of Amicus Curiae over at the SCOTUS blog  is very interesting. Most of the briefs seem to have been filed in favor of Trinity Lutheran, but it is interesting that some of the religious ones where not. Reading the briefs on both sides is informative.

I’ve always had some ambivalent feelings about religious organizations taking tax money. I was nervous about President George W. Bush’s office of Faith Based Initiatives because of the reality that accepting money always gives a person or organization a real or percieved degree of control. As one of my friends used to put it “you take the man’s money, you play by the man’s rules.” I’ve heard enough about the mixed bag having a church on the national register of historic places, for example, to say nothing of more contentious issues.

Which brings me to the underlying issue that I think is at play in our society: the proper role of Churches and other non-profits. Whenever issues like this come up on line (another hot button is the clergy housing allowance exclusion) there are always people who ask why churches shouldn’t be treated like businesses. The short answer is that churches are not businesses. Most churches are small. They were granted tax-exempt status not because they were religious, but for the same reason other non-profits were: they are intermediate institutions in society that are cooperative in nature and that, ostensibly at least, work for the common good. Because of this, our society determined that it would be wrong to burden voluntary associations made up of tax payers, whose missions and goals benefit society, with another layer of taxation.

The long and short of it is that, as a Christian, I would almost rather churches paid taxes, to rid ourselves of as much of any sense of beholden-ness to the state as we can. On the other hand, as a citizen, I actually do think these intermediate/mediating institutions are extremely important, especially in a society which is polarizing along too many lines to count (geography, generationally, racially, and certain economically).