The Tennessee attorney general has warned state lawmakers that a plan to directly fund churches with tax dollars is constitutionally unacceptable.
In a June 12 opinion, Attorney General Robert E. Cooper Jr. wrote that an “unrestricted grant of state funds to several churches and church youth groups would violate” the First Amendment principle of church-state separation as well as the Tennessee Constitution, which includes a provision that “no preference shall ever be given, by law, to any religious establishment or mode of worship.”
Cooper was prompted to issue the opinion by Rep. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) who, in a letter to the attorney general, asked about the constitutionality of a proposal to allocate more than $85,000 to 20 churches and church groups. The proposal contained no strictures on how the religious organizations could spend the public funds.
Cooper’s opinion came just days after Americans United urged him to issue an advisory opinion against providing the public funds to churches.
In a June 8 letter to Cooper, Americans United called on the attorney general to support church-state separation. The letter, written by Americans United Senior Litigation Counsel Alex J. Luchenitser, cited a string a federal court cases that bar direct government funding of religion.
Luchenitser noted that “there is no way to ensure that individual legislators are not favoring – for religious reasons – particular religious organizations over secular organizations or other religious organizations when selecting their grant recipients.”
Cooper, in his opinion, noted that most of the churches set to receive public dollars under the proposal are Baptist, making those grants “vulnerable to a challenge on the grounds that the grants would create a denominational preference.”