The U.S. Supreme Court has a chance Wednesday to fix a flaw in Missouri’s constitution — a prohibition borne of anti-Catholic prejudice and unneeded today.
If the court passes up its opportunity, Missouri’s voters should fix the mistake on their own.
The case involves a so-called Blaine Amendment, which prohibits the use of public money for religious purposes.
Missouri’s voters added the language to their state constitution in 1875. “No money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly,” it says, “in aid of any church, sect or denomination of religion.”
Similar amendments and statutes were sweeping the nation at the time. They were seen as a way to stop tax money from funding Catholic schools.
But the rule has seeped into places no one anticipated in the late 1800s.
In 2012, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Mo., asked for help from Missouri’s Scrap Tire Grant program. The church wanted to use shredded, recycled tires to make its preschool and day care playground safer.
Missouri said no. To provide the grant, it said, would be giving money to aid a religion, in violation of the state constitution.
We believe strongly in the separation of church and state. We would object if we saw evidence of any direct taxpayer subsidy of churches or religious schools.
But Missouri’s prohibition is so broad, it’s practically useless. “Indirect” public aid to a church could be just about anything: a stoplight, a better sidewalk, an ambulance for a sick congregant.
Allowing a fire rescue while outlawing a safe playground makes no sense. It breeds contempt for the rule of law.
Happily, Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens seems to understand this.
Sadly, Greitens injected himself into the controversy last week, clouding the legal waters so severely that the nation may now be years away from fixing the problem.
The governor issued an order requiring Missouri to consider grant applications from religious groups. But no governor has the authority to overrule the state’s constitution. Greitens’ decision will likely bring more lawsuits.
His order could also be overturned by the state’s next governor, further confusing everyone about what is and isn’t allowed. We shouldn’t play ping-pong with Missouri’s constitution.
Even worse, the U.S. Supreme Court might use Greitens’ announcement to avoid addressing the case at all. That would delay a final ruling for years.
Instead, we hope the court hears the case and decides Blaine Amendments are unconstitutional. There’s no evidence such a decision would doom public schools: The 15 states that don’t have the amendment still educate students.
If the court drops the case, though, Missouri voters should take the amendment out of the state constitution.
Legislators and voters would need to be vigilant to prevent abuse — parochial school vouchers are a particular concern.
We’re confident, though, that lawmakers and voters know the difference between subsidizing religion and helping kids avoid injury when they fall on a playground.