Protecting religious freedom does not demand state funding of religion

Protecting religious freedom does not demand state funding of religion
© Greg Nash

Can the government use your tax dollars to pay for religious teachings? No. At least that used to be the clear answer under our constitutional system that wisely separates the institutions of religion and government. But education voucher proponents have worked persistently over decades to chip away at the no-funding principle that prohibits the government from funding religion. In the case of Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, argued at the Supreme Court last week, voucher proponents once again asked the court to clear the way for tax support of religious education.

The case involves a state tax credit program that funds scholarships to private schools. In order to comply with its state constitution, Montana restricted the program to avoid funding religious schools. Parents of students who attend religious schools claim the state’s different treatment of religious schools violates their religious freedom. The case continued even after the entire program ended. A decision that requires such funding could fundamentally alter the relationship between the institutions of religion and government. 

Since our country’s founding era, Americans have professed a commitment to religious liberty and debated how the government should best protect free exercise without establishing religion. After Virginia cut financial ties with its established church, the Virginia legislature passed Thomas Jefferson’s bill for religious freedom, which said that “no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever.” The idea that religion should be independent from government taxation and free of its control distinguished this uniquely American experiment.

ADVERTISEMENT

Most states followed Virginia’s lead in protecting religious liberty by adopting explicit provisions that avoid government sponsorship of and government interference in religion. Beginning in 1835, many state constitutions expressly prohibited public dollars from being spent on religious schools. These “no-aid provisions” protect the free exercise of religion without forcing taxpayers to support religious teachings of groups they supported, much less actively opposed. Religious instruction, which certainly is an important religious activity, would be recognized as the responsibility of the religious community to which it is accountable, and not the responsibility of the secular government.

In their zeal to tap government resources, some advocates portray the no-funding principle as anti-religious, arising out of anti-Catholicism of the late 19th century. But the no-funding principle is an affirmative way to protect religious freedom for all people that was codified in our laws and state constitutions more than a half-century before the first significant wave of Catholic immigration. These provisions, like Montana’s, have kept public dollars from being awarded to any religious schools.

In fact, no-aid provisions protect religious liberty by guarding the rights of people of all faiths and the nonreligious. They remind us that religion is distinctive and beyond the competence of the government. They are the corollary to special religious exemptions that religious schools enjoy. These commonsense measures ensure that religious institutions are accountable to and dependent on their religious communities, not government entities. That’s why Montana delegates, including Catholics, overwhelmingly affirmed its no-aid provision in 1972 when it adopted a new constitution. And that’s why religious groups from a variety of faiths support the no-aid rule as an essential protection for religious liberty.  

As government’s reach extends into so many areas of our lives, some parents and some religious schools will continue to claim “discrimination” to justify government aid to religion. Of course, with government funding comes government rules. Our country’s experience for more than 200 years demonstrates that religious liberty is best protected when the government avoids funding religious exercise. The Supreme Court should allow Montana and other states to continue to say “no” to government funding of religious schools and to preserve public tax dollars for public schools.

Holly Hollman is general counsel for BJC (Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty), which filed an amicus brief in support of the state in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue. Follow on Twitter @BJContheHill.