Why Vouchers Subsidize Religion

When government helps to finance the operations of a religious organization, it violates the rights of the people whose wealth it forcibly takes for the purpose. Such funding violates not only people’s right to control their resources, but their right to follow their conscience, insofar as they are forced to propagate ideas with which they disagree. I’ve argued these points in a first, second, and third article responding to the Supreme Court’s decision that a playground operated by Trinity Lutheran Church must be considered for government grants available to others.

But when exactly does government funding constitute a subsidy to a given party, when does a subsidy promote a religious purpose, and what are the ethical implications of various government programs, such as tax-funded vouchers that parents can spend at religious schools? Vouchers are a hot topic; the Supreme Court also ordered the reconsideration of a voucher program in Douglas County, Colorado, that state courts had rejected.

Defining Subsidies

Most broadly, a subsidy is any transfer of wealth where the funder does not receive a good or service in return, as when parents subsidize their child’s school tuition or income. Here the context is government subsidies, which involve forcibly taking money from some people and giving it to others. The use of force distinguishes the subsidies at hand. Subsidies come in two main flavors: welfare for individuals, including Social Security payments and other “entitlements” funded by current taxpayers, and corporate welfare, such as grants to solar panel producers.

A subsidy is not, as many leftists claim, the lack of a tax or a lower tax on some person or group. As I’ve written, “letting a person keep his own money is [not] the equivalent of handing him someone else’s money.” So, for example, it would be wrong to say that government subsidizes churches by granting them tax-exempt status. (I think churches, nonprofits, for-profit corporations, and all other sorts of organizations should be taxed at the same rate, zero.) Unequal taxes can be a matter of cronyism (as I’ve written), but they’re not rightly considered subsidies.

A government contract for a good or service normally is not a subsidy to the producer. So government does not subsidize a defense contractor when it buys a tank from it. But if government spends money to enrich a contractor rather than to obtain a good or service at market price, that is a subsidy in effect. For example, if government buys an overpriced tank from the brother-in-law of a powerful Congressman, that is partly a subsidy. So we can distinguish formal subsidies from informal ones.

When government buys goods or services for private parties, it subsidizes the recipients of the goods or services, not the producers of them. So when government hires a contractor to construct a road out of general funds, it subsidizes the users of the roads, not the contractor. If government hired a private contractor to install rubber playground surfacing at a church facility, it would subsidize the church, not the installer.

Matters get tricky when we consider that many government-provided goods and services are funded partly by the recipients and partly by others. As an obvious example, roads are funded largely out of gasoline taxes, which function like a users’ fee, and partly out of general funds. Government subsidizes users of roads insofar as it forces people who do not use the roads (or who use them less) to pay disproportionately more for roads relative to use. Many municipalities finance things such as libraries and recreation facilities partly out of sales taxes, which both users and nonusers pay, and partly out of fees paid by users.

What about vouchers? Recipients of vouchers usually pay the property and other taxes that fund the vouchers. Insofar as recipients of vouchers get their own money back, they are not subsidized. But vouchers also are funded by people who do not have children in school and by people who pay far more taxes than the value of any voucher they receive. So voucher programs are substantially subsidized—although at a certain point following the dollars becomes impossible. (At issue are government-funded vouchers, not private ones.) I oppose vouchers because they function largely as subsidies. However, for reasons I’ve explained, people who oppose vouchers as a matter of policy may rightly use vouchers if available as a way to get some of their tax money back.

When Subsidies Support Religion

Getting back to the Supreme Court decisions that prompted this discussion, Trinity Lutheran Church clearly sought a subsidy in the form of tax-funded playground resurfacing. Even apart from the religious implications, such subsidies violate the rights of the funders to control their own wealth.

It is also worth checking whether a given subsidy promotes religion. Insofar as it does, it also violates people’s freedom of conscience, their right to decide which beliefs to embrace and support and which not to.

Freedom of conscience is broader than the freedom of religious worship mentioned by the First Amendment. Individuals have a moral right not only to embrace religious beliefs and to act on those beliefs within the boundaries of individual rights, but to embrace and act on nonreligious beliefs within the same boundaries. It is just as wrong for government to violate the rights of atheists and agnostics as it is for it for it to violate the rights of theists. It is just as wrong for government to force someone to help finance the propagation of religious beliefs with which he disagrees as it is for government to curtail someone’s religious practices (provided those practices are within the boundaries of individual rights).

When government gets into the business of subsidizing religious groups, it necessarily forces atheists to help finance theists, Christians to help finance Muslims, Buddhists to help finance monotheists, and so on. If government is to remain neutral, it must also open subsidies to Satanist groups and the like, which most people would prefer not to help finance. And, as religious organizations should note, government subsidies often come with government strings or lead to government oversight.

Is it a stretch to claim that all subsidies to religious groups thereby further a religious purpose? If government issued grants to print Bibles, obviously that would be a religious purpose, but there’s nothing inherently religious about a rubber playground surface. However, as my conservative friends never tire of pointing out in other contexts, money is fungible. Here that means that, if a church’s child-care facility gets tax-subsidized playground resurfacing, that frees up the church’s funds for other purposes—including overtly sectarian purposes. In addition, the church can use the improved playground as a way to promote its religious activities. So, when government subsidizes a religious organization in any form, trying to separate out a religious purpose from a nonreligious purpose is an errand for fools or frauds.

Vouchers as Religious Subsidies

Do vouchers count as subsidies for religious groups? Vouchers seem to be different in an important way from direct grants of cash, goods, or services to religious groups. Long-time reader Mike Spalding argues:

I don’t think vouchers count as funding religious groups. Some of the contracting companies the government uses to pave roads are run by religious folks who donate 10 percent or more to their church. Yes, as with vouchers, the money eventually goes to a religious group. But vouchers give money to parents to spend on a school. That the school may make a profit and that the profit may go to the religious group running the school is irrelevant. Personally I object to the government taking tax dollars to fund any schools. And I think vouchers subject schools to government oversight. But this is not funding religions.

Spalding’s reasoning is similar to that put forward by the Institute for Justice (IJ), which argues that in Colorado “the Choice Scholarship Program was designed to aid Douglas County families, not schools, and . . . not a penny flowed to any school, religious or nonreligious, but for the private and independent choice of parents.”

There are two main issues here: Do vouchers subsidize schools or just parents, and do they subsidize a religious purpose?

With vouchers, government effectively purchases educational services from nominally private schools used by parents and their children. So technically vouchers do not subsidize the schools; they subsidize the parents. If we say that vouchers “subsidize” schools, this should be interpreted as short-hand to mean that vouchers benefit schools by subsidizing the parents who use them.

But vouchers such as those developed in Douglas County subsidize parents for a religious purpose, and that is the point relevant to matters of freedom of conscience for the funders.

The voucher program in Douglas County might have been developed to exclude religious schools—although the recent Supreme Court decision may rule out such exclusions. Instead, the voucher program was intentionally designed to include religious schools.

As a practical matter, we can expect the voucher money in Douglas County (if the program proceeds) to go substantially if not mostly to religious schools. Heather Weaver of the American Civil Liberties Union wrote in 2015:

[E]very high school participating in the Douglas County voucher program [prior to courts shutting it down] was religious, with the exception of schools for special needs or gifted students. Most of the participating schools discriminated in admissions on the basis of religion. One school required students and parents to sign a Family Commitment Statement that included a promise to pray. Another school required parents of student applicants to attest to faith in Jesus Christ and sign a doctrinal statement submitting to the school’s religious beliefs. One participating school demanded that parents “give evidence” of their theological “regeneration”—or salvation—before their children would be enrolled.

Subsidies to parents to use at religious schools obviously promote a religious purpose. A central purpose of an overtly religious school is to promote religious beliefs. Because money is fungible, there is no such thing as a voucher payment restricted to a nonreligious function of a religious school; any such payment furthers the religious aims of the school. So vouchers directed to religious schools inherently help finance the religious mission of those schools—in violation of the rights of people who do not wish to help finance the propagation of religion (or of some specific religion) but are forced to do so.

Is buying an education from a religious school akin, as Spalding suggests, to buying (say) groceries from a religious grocer? After all, government grants food stamps to people who may spend them with religious grocers who in turn donate a portion of their profits to a church. In most cases the comparison is a stretch. There’s nothing inherently ideological about buying a banana. I have seen religious business owners post Bible versus on the walls, but such propaganda is superfluous to the business at hand.

Education, on the other hand, is inherently ideological. Will a school teach evolution? Will it do so accurately and well or, due to religious biases, misleadingly and half-heartedly? Will it also teach Creationism, if only as “literature” or “religious history”? In history classes, will it describe America as a “Christian nation” or a basically secular one?

Different subjects are more or less prone to a religious slant, but every aspect of education is influenced by the educator’s views about the purpose of education. Christians, Buddhists, and atheists can all play basketball and agree that two plus two equals four, but they often disagree profoundly about why it’s important to exercise, recreate, and learn mathematics. To a consistent Christian, the ultimate purpose of every action, even learning the multiplication tables, is to glorify God. So, again, the idea that vouchers spent at a religious school do not thereby support the school’s religious mission is fantasy.

Spalding does have a point, though. Insofar as government subsidizes the customers of a business owner who purposely works to help further religious purposes, government violates rights of conscience of those footing the bill. People have a moral right to boycott businesses that promote causes they disapprove of. Spalding’s point does not excuse vouchers; rather, it damns other sorts of subsidies.

Consider Hobby Lobby, one of the major hobby chains in the country. Hobby Lobby is widely known for its advocacy of religious beliefs—as when it took a case to the Supreme Court to avoid paying for health insurance that covers certain forms of birth control. If government offered “hobby vouchers,” which would go largely to support Hobby Lobby, that would violate the rights of conscience of the many leftists and atheists who oppose the religious advocacy of Hobby Lobby and do not wish to support that business.

How Leftists and Conservatives Ignore Rights

Notice something peculiar about the debate over vouchers. Conservatives (and libertarian-conservatives) often promote vouchers even though vouchers violate people’s rights to control their own wealth and act on their beliefs—rights that in other contexts conservatives often support. Leftist “Progressives” often oppose vouchers even as they support many other kinds of subsidies. The Institute for Justice fights for tax-funded vouchers in court, and the American Civil Liberties Union fights against them (as IJ notes). Why is this?

IJ and its allies focus on religious liberty and equal legal protection and ignore or downplay rights to property in this context. The ACLU focuses on the legal wall between church and state and also ignores or downplays rights to property, meant broadly to encompass all forms of wealth.

Religious liberty, equal protection under the law, and the separation of church and state all are important values—but they are not ultimately compatible or possible without property rights. That is the fundamental issue that both major sides of the voucher debate ignore.

Government necessarily violates religious liberty—and more broadly freedom of conscience—when it forces people to subsidize ideological movements of which they disapprove. Notably, although I have focused on religious groups in this article, the point applies equally to government forcing theists to subsidize the propagation of secular beliefs in tax-funded schools. The ACLU ultimately cannot care about the freedom of conscience of taxpayers because it does not care about property rights. Meanwhile, IJ focuses on freedom of conscience of the recipients of vouchers and ignores the freedom of conscience of the funders of vouchers.

When government subsidizes secular organizations or their customers but does not subsidize religious organizations or their customers, obviously it treats religious organizations unequally under the law. But equality under the law is a value only in the context of individual rights. Government could treat all people equally by forcing them all to cut off their right arms or by forcing them all to work for the government for ten years, but such equal treatment is not sufficient for justice. What advocates of vouchers call for is the equal violation of rights.

The legal separation of church of state too makes sense only in the context of property rights. When government forces religious people to finance secular causes, it does not achieve the separation of church and state; it uses the state to advantage secularism at the expense of religion. Yet the ACLU is blinded to this fact because, again, it ignores property rights. Government can be neutral with respect to religion only when it abstains from subsidizing ideological causes of all types. Yet to the ACLU that solution is unthinkable.

The approach of IJ and the ACLU (and their allies) leads to treating rights as inherently conflicting, such that government must “balance” people’s rights. And “balance” here is euphemism for violate. When government violates people’s property rights, it inevitably also violates freedom of conscience (including religious freedom), equal protection under the law, and the separation of church and state. The remaining debate is over whose rights government will violate and in what ways—whatever obfuscations and euphemisms disguise the nature of this debate.

It is only by consistently upholding property rights that government can consistently uphold freedom of conscience, equal protection under the law, and the separation of church and state. Perhaps one day the employees and supporters of IJ, the ACLU, and other organizations with similar stances on vouchers will allow themselves to realize that basic fact.

Image: Marie Loughin