Subsidies for Jesus and the Supreme Court’s Conundrum

Should states unjustly subsidize religious organizations—or unjustly discriminate against them? That is a conundrum facing the Supreme Court as religion-friendly Neil Gorsuch joins that body.

Here are the details of the relevant case—one with potentially broad implications—from Reuters:

Trinity Lutheran Church, which is located in Columbia, Missouri and runs a preschool and daycare center, said Missouri unlawfully excluded it from a grant program providing state funds to nonprofit groups to buy rubber playground surfaces. Missouri’s constitution prohibits “any church, sect or denomination of religion” from receiving state taxpayer money.

The basic case against subsidies specifically for religious groups is that they violate people’s rights not to financially support ideological groups of which they disapprove. Forcing individuals to subsidize such groups violates their freedom of conscience. This is true even if courts uphold the legal fantasy that states can somehow subsidize “non-religious” projects of religious groups without thereby subsidizing the groups’ overall missions. It is wrong, as examples, to force atheists or Hindus to subsidize the operations of a Protestant church or preschool.

The basic case against state discrimination against religious groups is that it violates the legal principle of equal protection under the law. If Missouri subsidizes the playgrounds of secular organizations, it is unfair for Missouri not to also subsidize the playgrounds of religious organizations.

This case is rationally unresolvable because it leaves unquestioned the underlying presumption that state governments should subsidize private organizations. If Missouri stopped subsidizing playgrounds, the case would be moot. But that possibility is not currently under consideration.

Whichever side the court takes in this matter, it will probably let stand the violation of some people’s rights—the only open question is whose rights will be violated.

The root issue is that people have a moral right to decide how to spend their resources. A person has a moral right not to subsidize a playground—and to spend that money on something else—regardless of the ideology of the individual or the organization. It is wrong to force a Protestant to subsidize a Protestant-run playground, too. Of course, people properly are free to voluntarily contribute their funds to playgrounds or to any other project consistent with individual rights. But the basic issue almost certainly will not be considered by today’s courts.

The wrong question is whether states should subsidize only secular playgrounds and not religious ones. The right question is whether states should subsidize private organizations. Assuming the Supreme Court will not address the right question, it will necessarily get the wrong answer.

Image: White House