By Kat Ridder, Editor-In-Chief
For a relatively small state—only two percent of the population of the United States—Missouri is often at the forefront of the nation’s controversial issues.
Pending before the United States Supreme Court is a case challenging a provision of Missouri’s constitution barring public funds from going to churches. Arguments were heard before the court last week and a decision is likely to be rendered in late June.
For those who believe in the necessity of strict separation between church and state, the potential outcome does not look good. A church in Missouri was denied state grant funding for playground improvements because of the clause in the Missouri Constitution that bars public monies from supporting religious institutions. The defendants are claiming religious discrimination, and even some of the more liberal judges on the Supreme Court seem to side with them.
While some acknowledge that the United State Constitution forbids the institution of laws against the free exercise of religion, they also contended that there is no requirement for state sponsorship or financial support of religion and that to do so would show state preference for one religion over another.
This decision would have far-ranging impact, since 40 states currently have provisions similar to the one in the Missouri Constitution.
While it may seem like an innocent enough claim—that children playing on a church playground should benefit from the same improvements as those on a public playground—there are many issues at play in the playground dispute. For instance, what if several religious institutions all applied for grant money and one gets funding and seven do not. If the Christian school gets the grant and not the Jewish, Catholic, Hindu, or Muslim ones, would they not have a case to sue that the state just chose one religion over another and discriminated against them?
What about a strict religious school that is only for boys or only for girls? Is that not sexual discrimination?
This is a slippery slope, and one that could get a lot more slippery. There are limited public funds to pay for the basic needs of primary, secondary, and higher public education in the State of Missouri. Will private, religious-based institutions like Saint Louis University be able to demand money from the state after claiming religious discrimination?
This past week there was a contentious debate in the Missouri House of Representatives over a bill designed to end discrimination against members of the LGBT community for things like housing and public accommodations. The proposed bill would have expanded Missouri’s Human Rights Act to include sexual orientation.
State Representative Tom Hannegan (R-St. Charles) joined Democrats in co-sponsoring the bill and testified that, “Discrimination is discrimination is discrimination. I don’t believe in protected classes. I think everybody should have the same rights, the same freedoms, the same law of protection.”
Still, this bill aimed at ending “actual discrimination” was attacked by religious conservatives like Alyssa Johnson of Concerned Women of America, who testified, “I am an Evangelical Christian, and my viewpoint on the matter is that the Bible does not condone homosexual lifestyles.”
While we do not know Johnson’s views on the case pending before the Supreme Court, the fact is that churches are claiming that their rights should be protected against discrimination by the state when it comes to them wanting public tax dollars. And at the same time, some of those very same religious groups feel they should have the right to discriminate against others.
The hypocrisy should be self-evident. But that hypocrisy is then compounded by the fact that the same religious institutions ready to lay hands on public tax dollars staunchly believe that they should remain free of the burden of paying taxes. If the Supreme Court does rule that denying churches access to public tax dollars is discrimination, then how can they deny that their exemption from paying those same taxes is not discriminating against all other taxpayers? The separation of church and state should remain intact, and no burden should be placed on public funding sources to those exempt from taxation.