As was evident from the first essay, the topic of religious liberty today brings to mind a number of challenges. It will take time to work through conflicts that arise as we navigate new waters of legal and cultural changes with regard to LGBT rights. It will also take hard work to get to a mutual understanding of what is at stake for all, including in contexts far beyond wedding vendors, as Robin Fretwell Wilson highlights in her last post.
By introducing the topic of government funding of religious institutions, Wilson moves the conversation to a new level of complexity. How our laws protect religious liberty depends on the context. The Trinity Lutheran Church case is different from cases about school vouchers or social services.
Religious people and religiously affiliated institutions have long been involved in government programs through various partnerships, carefully designed in ways to avoid subsidizing religion. Even the attorney for Trinity Lutheran Church conceded to Justice Elena Kagan that states are entitled to refuse to fund religious activities. The question is whether a state can take preventative measures to avoid unconstitutionally paying for religious activity by prohibiting the use of tax dollars for capital improvements to church property. Churches after all are unique religious institutions formed for the purpose of religious expression and exercise. They may or may not involve ministries that provide secular social services (food pantry, homeless outreach, medical clinic, education, etc.) performed by various religiously affiliated institutions.
Regardless of whether Trinity Lutheran Church proves to be “an easy case,” as Wilson describes it, state constitutions are part of the legal tradition that protects religious freedom. Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted during oral arguments that “We seem to be confusing money with religious practice.” The State of Missouri is not deciding how churches use their property. It is not forcing Trinity Lutheran Church to have a playground, prohibiting it from having one, or dictating how the church should use it; it is simply refusing to pay for its resurfacing. An important aspect of the American tradition of religious liberty recognizes that government often protects religion by staying out of it.
Despite our diverse perspectives on specific issues, it seems we can agree that religious liberty is a fundamental constitutional value, and as David Gans explains, a founding principle, worthy of a deeper conversation. Our religious liberty tradition of “free exercise” and “no establishment” has served our country well and stood the test of time through careful tending. We may not agree on all of the outcomes of specific disputes, but we should recognize the value of important safeguards that have protected against government-sponsored religion and have protected our religious institutions.