The Religious Liberty to Spend Other People’s Money

The forgotten person, whose freedom of conscience and right to direct his wealth are ignored, is the one forced to help finance a project a government agency deems best.

Religious organizations have the same right as nonreligious ones to use wealth taken from others by force, according to the Supreme Court and its conservative cheerleaders.

At issue is the high court’s Trinity Lutheran Church decision of June 26. After the Missouri Department of Natural Resources declined to issue a grant to rubberize the playground of the Trinity Lutheran Church Child Learning Center on grounds that the state forbids grants to religious organizations, Trinity Lutheran sued. (The Department issued such grants to nonreligious nonprofits.) The Supreme Court decided that the state cannot discriminate against religious organizations in offering a “public benefit” such as a grant.

The Colorado Springs Gazette hopes that the Court’s decision will “free Colorado kids” to spend tax-funded vouchers at religious schools. As John Kramer from the Institute for Justice (IJ) explains, the Supreme Court also directed the Colorado Supreme Court to reconsider, in light of the Trinity decision, a 2015 decision rejecting the use of vouchers at religious schools. The case involves Douglas County, which IJ represents in the matter, but has implications statewide and indeed nationwide.

Whether or not the Trinity decision ultimately leads to the wider use of tax-funded vouchers at religious schools, it sanctions use of tax-funded benefits by religious organizations, use that undoubtedly will expand under the ruling.

Who is the “forgotten man” of this decision? The person who is forgotten, whose freedom of conscience and right to direct his wealth are ignored, is the person forced to help finance a religious institution who does not wish to do so.

The atheist who does not wish to help finance any religious organization, and indeed who believes it is immoral for him to do, is forgotten, his rights ignored.

The religious person who does not wish to help finance an organization that promotes a different religion is forgotten, his rights ignored.

Anyone who wishes to choose which organizations to support, and wishes not to help finance projects a government agency deems best, is forgotten, his rights ignored.

Some people may be “free” to spend other people’s money, as the Gazette indicates, but the people financing the projects in question are not free in that respect. They are threatened with fines, arrest, and even imprisonment if they do not pay up. They are offered a deal they cannot refuse, and their own judgments, liberties, and beliefs of conscience be damned.

This is not to say that government violates people’s rights only when it forces them to help finance a religious organization. It also violates people’s rights when it forces, say, Christians to help finance organizations that promote secular views. So the Supreme Court would have sanctioned the violation of people’s rights whether it said governments may fund only secular organizations or religious ones too.

The only way out of this conundrum consistent with individual rights, as I argued in my April article on the matter, is for government to stop subsidizing private organizations altogether. But of course the Supreme Court would not possibly consider issuing a ruling that protects everyone’s rights. These days the job of the Court in such matters is merely to decide whose rights will be violated, in which ways, and how severely.

Some critics may think I’m making too big a deal over a playground. But the principle at stake is broad. If government may force people to help finance a playground, religious or otherwise, then government logically may force people to help finance practically anything, regardless of the purpose or scope of the project.

Perhaps in some future case American courts will take seriously the inextricable link between freedom of conscience and freedom of finance.

See also “Cakes, Playgrounds, and Conservative Hypocrisy on Religious Liberty.”

Image: Greg Goebel. Note: I used a generic playground image because I could not locate an image of the church playground in question that was free to use. -AA