This week, the United States Supreme Court will hear a case out of our own backyard that wrestles with a vestige of our anti-Catholic past. In Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, the State of Missouri denied a Columbia preschool access to its scrap tire recycling program to resurface its playground because of Trinity’s religious affiliation. Missouri has a constitutional provision known as a “Blaine amendment,” which bars public “aid” to religious institutions.
James G. Blaine was the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, a Senator from Maine, and the Republican party’s nominee for president in 1884. While historical accounts differ about his personal attitudes toward Catholics, there is no question that he tried to leverage anti-Catholic sentiment to make his way into the White House. He attempted to amend the U.S. Constitution to bar aid to the burgeoning Catholic school system that was cropping up around the country in response to the public schools’ emphasis on teaching Protestantism. (Many might be unaware that for a long time, students in public schools would read from the King James Bible and sing Christian hymns).
While Blaine was unsuccessful in amending the U.S. Constitution, 38 states have so called “anti-aid” provisions in their Constitutions, including Missouri.
Lawyers for Trinity, and for numerous faith groups filing amicus briefs, argue that the application of such provisions violates the First and Fourteenth amendment rights of individuals and organizations. As lawyers for the Institute for Justice put it, “the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment, as well as the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, demand neutrality—not hostility—toward religion.” The State of Missouri singled out Trinity, whose application otherwise would have been approved, solely because it is a religious organization even though the “aid” does not advance its religion.
Understandably, many folks reading this might not care about a school resurfacing its playground. But it is important to note that religious organizations provide important social services to members of our community—and to poor and marginalized communities around the nation—with government support. Soldiers use the GI Bill to attend Saint Louis University, and low-income families use Medicaid dollars at Cardinal Glennon hospital. If providing used tires to Trinity Lutheran is unlawfully providing aid to a religion, wouldn’t these other examples of cooperation between government and religious organizations amount to the same thing?
A decision in favor of Trinity would reinforce a commitment to treat religious organizations neutrally (neither privileging them nor discriminating against them) and would help close the door on a sad time in American history.