On April 13, Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens said he would allow — even encourage — religious organizations to apply to the Department of Natural Resources for taxpayer-supported grants.
The announcement came less than a week before the U.S. Supreme Court was scheduled to hear arguments on a case from Missouri about those grants. A church in Columbia sued after a state agency denied it recycled tire scraps for a playground.
Not to worry, the governor’s office said.
“Today’s action by Governor Greitens is not expected to affect the Trinity Lutheran case before the Supreme Court,” the news release said. “It does ensure that future groups will not be discriminated against based on religion again.”
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Both statements were foolish and false. They do tell us a lot about Greitens’ approach to governing and politics, though.
In actual fact, the governor’s action may directly affect the case before the Supreme Court. It’s possible the justices will avoid reaching a decision in the case precisely because Greitens announced the policy change, rendering the court’s role moot.
That lack of clarity could result in groups facing years of new lawsuits over the state’s allocation policy for religious organizations. Missouri, and the nation, were this close to settling a thorny and fundamental argument over church and state, and the governor potentially blew it up.
Of course, it’s possible the court will ignore the governor and deliver a decision. If so, Greitens’ announcement will be meaningless: If the court rules for the church, his action was unnecessary. If it rules against the church, the action would be unconstitutional.
Why would the governor make such a fundamental political mistake? He only needed to wait a couple of months for the Supreme Court’s decision.
The answer seems obvious: The action had nothing to do with policy or the relationship between church and state. Instead, it was a way for Greitens to force his way into national headlines again.
Waiting for the court had no political upside, the governor apparently concluded. If the justices vindicated the church, Greitens would get no credit. If the church lost, there would be nothing for Greitens to do.
This apparently was unacceptable to the governor and the people advising him. Better to plunge into the issue, even at the very real risk of destroying the case and dragging Missouri through the dispute for another couple of years.
For the governor’s office, politics aren’t just first on the agenda — they’re the only thing that matter.
Do we need more evidence? The governor’s call for ethics reform has collapsed, largely because of his own behavior. His first budget, delivered late, hasn’t passed. Greitens has accomplished little in his first 100 days — other than antagonize Republicans, reporters and Democrats.
I’ve criticized Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback for a long time, but give him his due: Brownback fights for something real. There is real policy behind his work.
The same cannot be said of Greitens. He seems driven, even at this early date, by calculations that ignore governing.
Unless he grasps that reality, the governor’s obvious future ambitions will be not much more than a punchline.