Church, state, and taxpayer support: is America moving toward a European model?

Author:Boston, Rob

In my travels in the world of humanism, I've encountered lots of people who speak wistfully about the differences between the United States and European nations.

Indeed, in some aspects European and Scandinavian countries are miles ahead of us, particularly when it comes to social welfare programs. They've had single-payer health care plans for years, they support people in retirement, they provide parental leave and other forms of assistance for families, and they generally have strong social safety nets that protect their residents from the ravages of a free-market economy.

Bully for them, but there's one area the Europeans didn't get right: church-state relations. Many of these countries, such as England, still have established churches. Others, like Germany, impose church taxes on their citizens. Even France, with its much-vaulted principle of laicite--official secularism--funnels money to Catholic schools.

Here in the United States, our founders saw the flaws of the European model of church-state relations and consciously rejected it. Instead, they opted for separation of church and state.

The issue that really drove the push for church-state separation in the new nation was compelled financial support for religion. If you read colonial-era history, you'll see this issue surface time and again. The idea that someone could be forced to financially support a church they didn't even belong to--a church whose tenets they might violently oppose--infuriated early advocates of religious freedom. The argument was brilliantly encapsulated by James Madison in his famous "Memorial & Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments" (1785). It's a list of fifteen reasons why no one should be forced to pay a church tax--any church tax. In Madison's view, even three pence was too much.

Given this history, it's odd and disturbing to see our nation inching toward a European model of church-state relations, a model anchored not in the voluntary principle but in taxpayer support for houses of worship. Yet that is exactly what we are doing.

The US Supreme Court took a big step in this direction June 26 when it handed down a ruling in a case called Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer. The facts of the case seemed prosaic at first glance: a church in Missouri sought a grant from the state government to resurface the playground of its preschool with a material made from recycled tires.

State officials denied the grant, pointing to a provision in the...

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