Religious freedom claims have significant deference in the U.S. legal system, and they have increasingly come into conflict with the rights of workers. In this week’s Working-Class Perspective, Ken Estey warns that a failure to balance religious liberty with public welfare undermines the common good.
Religious freedom cases also affect working-class people beyond the workplace. In April, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments over whether a church was eligible for a grant from a state program aimed at non-profits. Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Missouri sought a grant from a state program aimed at resurfacing playgrounds with recycled tires. The state initially denied Trinity’s application on the basis of Section 7 of the state constitution, which stipulates that “no money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect or denomination of religion.”
What could possibly be wrong with fixing a playground? After all, although it is on church property, children from the community around Trinity Lutheran may use it as well. Just the week before, on April 13, the new Republican governor of Missouri, Eric Greitens issued a statement supporting the church’s claim: “Before we came into office, government bureaucrats were under orders to deny grants to people of faith who wanted to do things like make community playgrounds for kids… That’s just wrong… We have hundreds of outstanding religious organizations all over the state of Missouri who are doing great work on behalf of kids and families every single day. We should be encouraging that work.”
The controversy at Trinity Lutheran Church is much bigger than their playground. Will the Roberts court use this case, despite the governor’s announcement, to strike down Missouri’s bar on direct state aid to religious institutions – and in the process also overturn similar prohibitions in 37 other states? A broad ruling could have significant consequences, including direct public funding for private, religious schools – most of which are Christian. That may be one rationale for the suit over the playground grant. The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), Trinity’s legal representation, states on its website that the “Christian community gained growing awareness that the threats to its freedom were multiplying. The legal system, which was built on a moral and Christian foundation, had been steadily moving against religious freedom, the sanctity of life, and marriage and family. And very few Christians were showing up in court to put up a fight. By funding cases, training attorneys, and successfully advocating for freedom in court, Alliance Defending Freedom changed that.”
Trinity Lutheran Church is a member congregation of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, a conservative evangelical denomination, well to the right (theologically and politically) of fellow Lutherans in the larger, more liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Trinity’s physical location is a few miles from Columbia’s downtown but a million miles from its most economically challenged neighborhoods. The census tract in which Trinity is located has an average income of just over $78,000, while two census tracts to the east, average incomes barely reach $12,000. Trinity’s census tract is 86% white while Columbia as a whole is 77% white. The poverty rate for all of Columbia is nearly 25% against the state average of almost 16%. In this case, the distribution of public funds is not only diverted directly to a church but a congregation that is already in an economically privileged neighborhood. The cost to refurbish Trinity’s playground won’t break Missouri’s bank. And perhaps the church does not minister only to its most proximate neighbors but also draws people from around an economically challenged city.
But this case suggests what might be heading our way: in the name of religious freedom, scarce public funds, those very funds on which the working classes most depend for public services, might be diverted toward private ends that benefit those who already have more resources, ends that may not enhance the common good. The case of Trinity Lutheran Church might only be a playground now, but it could be the plaything for those who want to redistribute public funds for the direct benefit of religious bodies. How will public institutions fare, the ones that working-class people depend upon most, if they are starved of funding as public dollars move into the hands of private institutions that are already unburdened by any taxation?
The Working-Class Perspectives blog is brought to you by our Visiting Scholar for the 2015-17 academic years, John Russo, and Georgetown University English professor, Sherry Linkon. It features several regular and guest contributors. Last year, the blog published 44 posts that were read over 128,000 times by readers in 189 countries.