Did the Supreme Court “Strike Down a Major Church-State Barrier” Yesterday?

Trinity LutheranThe title of Atlantic writer Emma Green’s article on the Supreme Court’s recent Trinity Lutheran v. Comer is titled “The Supreme Court Strikes Down a Major Church-State Barrier.”

In case you are new to the case, the Supreme Court ruled that the state of Missouri cannot deny funds to a church because it is a religious institution.  Green writes:

Seven justices affirmed the judgment in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, albeit with some disagreement about the reasoning behind it. The major church-state case could potentially expand the legal understanding of the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It is also the first time the Supreme Court has ruled that governments must provide money directly to a house of worship, which could have implications for future policy fights—including funding for private, religious charter schools.  

Trinity Lutheran is a big case that hinges on mundane facts. In 2012, when Trinity Lutheran Church in Missouri applied for a state grant to resurface its playground, it was ranked as a strong potential candidate for the program. Ultimately, though, Missouri denied the funding under a state constitutional provision that prohibits public money from going to religious organizations and houses of worship. “There is no question that Trinity Lutheran was denied a grant simply because of what it is,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts in his decision for the majority. “A church.”

The case focused on whether this decision conflicts with the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, and specifically whether Missouri was violating the free-exercise clause by preventing Trinity Lutheran from participating in a secular, neutral aid program. On Monday, the court overwhelmingly agreed that the answer was “yes.”

Read Green’s entire piece here.

Over at his blog Snakes and Ladders, Baylor English professor Alan Jacobs takes issue with the title of Green’s piece.

Here is a taste of Jacobs’s post:

Emma Green, the fine reporter who wrote the story (though not the headline), asked me to clarify, so here goes:

  1. That the story lede (the first sentence) is accurate will be seen from what follows.
  2. I called the dek (the description below the headline) “misleading,” but that is generous: it’s simply wrong. And Emma Green — who, again, is a superb reporter and rarely makes errors like this — gets it wrong in her story when she writes the source of the dek: “It is also the first time the Supreme Court has ruled that governments must provide money directly to a house of worship.” No: it is not true government “must” provide money to a house of worship or to any other organization. The ruling, rather, is that if a state or local government says that it will provide money to organizations in return for providing certain services — in this case, the maintaining of a playground available to children throughout the community — then it cannot withhold that money from churches simply because they are churches. (The New York Times get it wrong in its headline too, and in the same way: “States Must Aid Some Church Programs, Justices Rule.”) I understand that you can’t squeeze everything into a headline, but the distinction between “governments must give money to churches” and “governments cannot exclude churches qua churches from projects for civic improvement” is not an especially subtle one.
  3. The idea expressed in the hed that this decision “Strikes Down a Major Church-State Barrier” is simply absurd. What is the “barrier” that existed before this ruling and if now gone? What does this ruling do to establish a state church? After all, the ruling applies equally to churches, mosques, synagogues, and atheist community centers: by what torturing of logic could such a ruling be said to establish a state religion? Just as the Civil Rights Act helped to enfranchise people of color without disenfranchising white people, so this ruling excludes prejudice against churches qua churches (in this one minor matter) without infringing on anyone else’s rights.

Read the entire post here.

Thoughts? Jacobs makes sense to me.

One thought on “Did the Supreme Court “Strike Down a Major Church-State Barrier” Yesterday?

  1. Actually, Jacobs doesn’t prove Green’s assertion is incorrect. He didn’t actually provide a case in his if-then formula where the Supreme Court had previously ordered a state to fund a house of worship in such a program. The major barrier is the 30+ states with ‘no aid’ clauses that may have to include houses of worship in taxpayer-funded programs. No funding is a church-state barrier now knocked down (at least partially).

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