Vogel: Church And State

Jun 28, 2017

In the recent case of Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Trinity Lutheran Church – potentially changing the way faith based organizations provide social services and whom they serve.

Many religious groups create programs to help the less fortunate in our society. A number of local, religious organizations partner with Hunger Free Vermont to provide meals for children during the summer.

As these social programs grow, each religious organization faces a choice. It can continue to operate these programs as part of the church or it can spin them off as a nonprofit organization. Keeping it within the church allows the congregation to make its own rules and serve up religious teaching with the food. But doing so, means that they’re generally not eligible for public funding. Thirty nine states have provisions in their constitutions prohibiting them from making grants to religious institutions.

Alternatively, turning a church based program into a nonprofit organization has both advantages and disadvantages. Nonprofits are governed by rules that require greater transparency and openness to serving a broader community. But that doesn’t mean the religious organization cannot continue to maintain a meaningful relationship with the nonprofit it created.

For example, the National Benevolent Association or NBA spun out of the Disciples of Christ church and built facilities to serve children, the elderly and the disabled. Church members continue to volunteer at these facilities and support them financially. But as a nonprofit receiving some public funding, the NBA facilities welcomed everyone, regardless of their religious beliefs.

And here’s why I think the recent ruling by the Supreme Court is so disturbing.

Trinity Lutheran Church could have set up a nonprofit organization to run its daycare program. But it chose instead to operate the daycare as a Church program and still argued that it deserved public funding.

In rendering his opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts pretended that the whole issue was simply about paying to fix up the church’s playground. He wrote, “The consequence is, in all likelihood, a few extra scraped knees.”

But I think this decision will have much more serious consequences, especially in the long run.

I agree with Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who wrote; “if separation of church and state still means anything, the government cannot, or at the very least need not, tax its citizens and turn that money over to houses of worship.”