Conservatives Play the Bigotry Card to Support Tax Funds for Religious Groups

Tax subsidies to religious organizations are not justified just because laws that ban such subsidies arose from anti-Catholic sentiment.

We expect people on the left to argue that government should counter bigotry by forcing private parties to do things they otherwise would not do, such as, in the case of a Christian baker who opposes homosexuality, bake a cake for a gay wedding.

We do not usually expect conservatives to make comparable arguments, but, when it comes to tax funding for religious groups, many conservatives do just that. They are wrong to do so.

Let’s first consider in more detail what people on the left typically think. James Esseks of the American Civil Liberties Union argues that “religious freedom doesn’t give anyone the right to discriminate against or harm other people.” The problem with his claim is that it conflates proactively harmful action, including physical violence, with the lack of helpful action. But beating someone is hardly the equivalent of not baking a cake for the person. Both the action and the inaction here arise from bigotry and are morally condemnable, but only the former violates rights (regardless of what the courts might say on the matter). Not helping a person (outside of an existing contractual relationship) leaves the person untouched and free to go his own way and associate with others.

The only plausible argument I can see that a cake baker proactively “harms” someone by not baking a cake is that, if the baker purports to be open to all comers (within the bounds of civility and hygiene) and then refuses service, that wastes a few minutes of the would-be patron’s time. But businesses could easily enough post that they refuse certain types of services on religious grounds. Notably, everyone else could also easily boycott such businesses, and listing agencies could easily refuse to list them.

If we’re going to expand “harm” to include murder and physical assault as well as hurting someone’s feelings, then practically everything on Twitter should be deemed an offense. Logically, we should also legally punish those who decline to date people outside their religion. I don’t think Esseks has thought through the logical implications of his position very well. The fact that bigotry always is morally condemnable doesn’t mean it always should be legally punished.

Progressive writer Jason Salzman also emphasizes bigotry in discussing Masterpiece Cakeshop, a Colorado business that declined to bake a cake for a gay wedding in a case now headed to the Supreme Court.

Salzman makes a persuasive case that the group representing the bakery in court, Alliance Defending Freedom, “is fundamentally opposed to the civil rights of gay people.” But the fact that the group is motivated by bigotry doesn’t mean Colorado government should punish bakers for not baking cakes for gay weddings. I can hope for the baker to prevail in court without sanctioning the organization defending him.

(Note: Currently I am a card-carrying member of the ACLU, and I’ve had friendly engagements with Salzman despite our disagreements.)

Now turn to the similar ways that conservatives discuss bigotry to support tax funding for religious groups.

The Institute for Justice, which hopes the Supreme Court’s decision allowing playground grants for Trinity Lutheran Church will lead to tax-funded vouchers for religious schools, points to the “anti-Catholic bigotry” behind the Blaine amendments that in many states block religious groups from getting tax money. The Colorado Springs Gazette editorial page and the Independence Institute (for which I have written) also make much of the Blaine amendments.

These conservatives (or conservative-libertarians) seem to argue that, because bans of tax money to religious groups were created out of anti-Catholic sentiment, therefore the transfer of tax money to religious groups is justified. But obviously that is a non sequitur.

As I have argued, forcing people to finance religious organizations violates their rights. No conservative has offered any sort of plausible argument against my position. The fact that the laws banning the transfer of tax funds to religious groups were created out of anti-Catholic sentiment does not imply that forcing people to help finance religious organizations is somehow justified. Two wrongs still do not make a right. (As for equal-protection claims, I’ve also indicated how to resolve such issues.)

Many of today’s conservatives in effect argue that past bigotry justifies present subsidies for religious groups. And it’s a little surprising that conservatives make this argument with a straight face, given how loudly they often criticize similar arguments put forward by the left.

Image of James G. Blaine: Library of Congress via Wikipedia