By Rev. Fred Hinz
Last month, in the case of Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Missouri (LCMS) vs. Comer, the US Supreme Court determined that it is unconstitutional for the government to deny benefits to some of its citizens and institutions on the basis of religion. In fact, the 7-2 majority said that such an attempt on the part of the State is “odious to the constitution...and cannot stand.”
The case stems from Missouri’s decision to deny Trinity the option of participating in a state program to help fund the resurfacing of playgrounds with recycled rubber. Their denial was based on an amendment in their state constitution barring state monies from benefitting any religious institution (referred to as a Blaine Amendment). Similar amendments are in 39 state constitutions, and have been used to deny religious persons and institutions access to the same government benefits that others enjoy. In the Supreme Court’s opinion, however, it’s clear that such discrimination is wrong, and as Justice Sotomayor dissented, all Blaine Amendments have been “effectively invalidated.”
So, what does this mean in practical terms; is this a ruling confined to just playgrounds? Not likely. Though there was some small effort to limit the effects of this ruling, observers agree that it will have a broad impact on a variety of religious freedom issues, particularly parental choice in education.
Parental choice efforts have proven successful in some states and are still gaining momentum in many others, including Minnesota. The goal with these efforts is to put funding mechanisms in place that enhance parents’ ability to choose the religious or non-religious school they wish for their child(ren). In some states, this takes the form of a voucher given directly from the state to the parents. In others, including what we’ve attempted to pass in Minnesota, the funding involves the establishment of scholarship funds and special tax credits to donors who fund the scholarships.
An increased level of parental choice would revolutionize education across the country, allowing parents, not state governments, to hold schools accountable. Government funding would no longer, intentionally or unintentionally, favor a secular form of education and worldview over that of a religious education and worldview. Rather, the government would be truly neutral between religion and non-religion, as it is called to be in the Constitution.
We will continue to observe how courts and legislatures will interpret and implement policies in light of the Trinity ruling. As the future unfolds, we continue to hope and pray that we experience greater freedom for the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a world that desperately needs such Good News!