On April 19, the United States Supreme Court will hear a case out of our own backyard that wrestles with a vestige of our anti-Catholic past. It will be one of the first cases that newly appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch will hear.
The facts of the Trinity Lutheran v. Comer case are relatively straightforward. In 2012, Trinity Lutheran Child Learning Center in Columbia applied to Missouri’s scrap tire recycling program for material to use in resurfacing its playground. Even though its application was ranked fifth out of the 44 submitted, and even though the program was open to private schools and nonprofits, Trinity’s application was denied, with the state arguing that reimbursing the school for purchasing scrap tires would violate Missouri’s constitution. The state has a constitutional provision known as a Blaine Amendment, which bars public “aid” to religious institutions.
James G. Blaine was the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, a senator from Maine and the Republican Party’s nominee for president in 1884. While historical accounts differ about his personal attitudes toward Catholics, there is no question that he tried to leverage anti-Catholic sentiment to make his way into the White House.
Many might be unaware that for a long time, students in public schools would read from the King James Bible and sing Christian hymns. Blaine attempted to amend the Constitution to bar aid to the burgeoning Catholic school system, which was cropping up around the country in response to hostility toward Catholics in traditional public schools.
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While Blaine was unsuccessful in amending the Constitution — and in his bid for the presidency, for that matter — his legacy lives on in 38 states that have the so called “anti-aid” provisions in their constitutions, including Missouri. Instead of naming Catholics outright, they use coded terms like “sectarian,” which meant Catholic at the time but have morphed to encompass all religious organizations.
Lawyers for Trinity, and for numerous faith-based groups filing amicus briefs, argue that the application of such provisions violates the First and Fourteenth Amendment rights of individuals and organizations. As lawyers for the Institute for Justice put it, “the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment, as well as the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, demand neutrality — not hostility — toward religion.” Missouri singled out Trinity, whose application otherwise would have been approved, solely because it is a religious organization and even though the “aid” does not advance its religion.
Some reading this might not care about a school resurfacing its playground. But it is important to note that religious organizations provide important social services to members of our community — and to poor and marginalized communities around the nation — with government support. Soldiers use the G.I. Bill to attend Rockhurst University. Low-income families use Medicaid dollars at St. Luke’s Hospital. If providing used tires to Trinity Lutheran is unlawfully providing aid to a religious group, wouldn’t these other examples of cooperation between government and religious organizations amount to the same thing?
While anti-Catholicism is a shameful element of our nation’s history, the fact that we have worked through the diverse tapestry of our civil society to solve problems is something of which we can be proud. It is what early observers of the American experiment like Alexis de Tocqueville found so intriguing and promising about our young nation.
A decision in favor of Trinity would reinforce a commitment on the part of the government to treat religious organizations neutrally (neither privileging them nor discriminating against them) and would help close the door on a sad time in American history.
Michael Q. McShane is director of education policy at the Show-Me Institute.