I have grave reservations about George Will’s prescription, expressed in his latest Washington Post column, about using state money to support religious institutions. He’s writing about “Blaine amendments”, constitutional proscriptions in some state constitutions, against disbursing state funds to religious institutions. Here’s the wording of the Missouri version:
No money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect or denomination of religion.
Here’s Mr. Will’s retort, describing a grant for installing a rubber protective surface in the playground of a Lutheran church’s preschool:
Practices during the Founders’ era demonstrate, McConnell argues, that “including religious groups in neutral public benefit programs was not viewed as an establishment.” And: “Shredded tires have no religious, ideological, or even instructional content . . . a rubberized playground is existentially incapable of advancing religion.”
Missouri cites, in defense of its practice, an utterly inapposite case in which the Supreme Court upheld a state’s refusal to fund students seeking degrees in devotional theology, even though it funded degrees in secular subjects. This involved entirely different issues than Missouri denying an organization access to a public safety benefit simply because the organization is religious. Spreading shredded tires beneath a jungle gym hardly (in the Supreme Court’s language) “intentionally or inadvertently inculcates particular religious tenets.” And Missouri’s denial of this benefit is, McConnell writes, “the clearest possible example of an unconstitutional penalty on the exercise of a constitutional right,” the free exercise of religion.
“The religious status of the Trinity Lutheran day care bears not the slightest relevance to the purpose of the state’s program.” Which pertains to knees.
Here’s my reservation: money is fungible. The money that Trinity Lutheran does not spend from its own pocket repaving the playground can be used for other, more explicitly religious purposes, and you have the State of Missouri supporting a religious institution and, presumably, determining which institutions it will support and which it won’t.
My reaction is a distinctly American one. In the United Kingdom religion classes remain mandatory in its state schools and in Germany 8% of the income tax goes to support the state churches. As in so much else we’re an outlier.