Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court heard Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc,. vs. Comer. The case revolves around the church’s desire to participate in a Missouri state program that recycles used tires for material that provides rubber surfaces for playgrounds. The local Department of Natural Resources refused Trinity’s request for a $20,000 grant to be spent on the resurfacing of its playground because of the state constitution’s Blaine Amendment, which reads “No money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect or denomination of religion.”
The Washington Post’s George Will points out that 37 states have a form of the Blaine Amendment in their constitutions, and Congress required its adoption for new states wanting to join our nation. The columnist explains that Blaine Amendments are named after James Blaine who was a “Republican Speaker of the House and 1884 presidential nominee.” Mr. Blaine was upset with the proliferation of Catholic schools in this country, and therefore wanted to make sure that public funds were not going to support their expansion. These amendments are of particular interest to school choice supporters since voucher plans throughout this country have been judged unconstitutional because the programs include secular schools. The scholarships are therefore seen as taxpayer money going to help religious institutions.
Trinity Church sued, according to Mr. Will, saying “the state is abridging its First Amendment right to the ‘free exercise’ of religion and denying the 14th Amendment guarantee of ‘equal protection of the laws.'”
The whole argument against allowing the church access to this money is absurd. As Michael McConnell, a church vs. state subject matter expert law professor from Stanford University has written about this case, “A scraped knee is a scraped knee whether it happens at a Montessori day care or a Lutheran day care.” The bottom line is that the Missouri program is in place to protect the safety of its children.
An extremely similar line of reasoning applies to the use of private school vouchers. They are being provided to parents so that they can make the best decision as to where they can sent their kids to learn. This has nothing to do with favoring one religion over another, or promoting a particular system of worship as establishing an American church.
Mr. Will goes on to reveal that the U.S. Supreme Court has adopted a three-part test for allowing public dollars to pass to religions institutions. “A statute pertaining to contact between government and religion does not constitute establishment of religion if the statute has ‘a secular legislative purpose’ (again: knees), it neither advances nor inhibits religion, and it does not involve ‘excessive government entanglement with religion.'”
As can easily be deducted from the above language the Missouri program passes these requirements as does any private school voucher plan.
A decision will come this summer.