By The Rev. David W. Key Sr.
A case currently pending before the U.S. Supreme Court could dramatically affect the religious freedom of all Americans.
As a Baptist pastor and professor, I have long believed in the freedom of conscience for all people; I believe every person is made in the image of God, and is therefore given the freedom to know God and respond to God’s will. This is core to the Baptist tradition.
Indeed, this is core to our nation’s tradition as well. The principle of church-state separation has protected religious freedom since the founding of our country. We’re allowed to worship without government interference, and to choose our religious beliefs as our conscience dictates. Each of us gets to decide which churches and charities we support through our deeds and donations, and we don’t have to worry about our tax dollars supporting religious missions we may not believe in.
Unfortunately, this core principle is being tested in a case that was argued before the Supreme Court on April 19. The case, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, concerns a church in Missouri that sought money from the state to resurface its playground. Missouri officials denied the church’s application for funding because a provision in the Missouri Constitution does not allow taxpayers to fund churches. The church sued state officials.
As a pastor, I am constantly facing expanding budgets and shrinking resources to carry out our congregation’s ministries. Thus, you might think that I would be willing to side with Trinity Lutheran in its lawsuit seeking funding from the state government. However, I do not agree. Freedom of conscience demands that houses of worship rely on contributions of money and time given voluntarily by members and supporters, not by government and taxpayers.
My church has worked with the underserved in our community for over a decade. We have conducted enrichment activities for the children to help them see a brighter future. We rely on our church volunteers and contributions to make the program work.
That’s just one story of how our nation’s churches have successfully relied on voluntary contributions for more than 200 years.
Taxpayer funding of churches, by contrast, is wrong. For starters, it’s a fundamental violation of the right of conscience to compel someone to support a religion that they don’t agree with. Anger over compulsory support for ministers and churches led to the creation of separation of church and state in our Constitution. We shouldn’t return to a system that our Founders found antithetical to liberty.
The independence of faith communities allows them to pursue their own ministries and speak out about the issues of the day to policymakers without interference. When government funds are at stake, congregations could give up their prophetic voice for fear that criticism of government officials would negatively impact their funding stream. And pastors may even find themselves enmeshed in partisan politics, as congregations are tempted to support those politicians who promise to direct money the churches’ way.
I am thankful that the U.S. Constitution and most state constitutions safeguard religious freedom by ensuring that the government cannot fund our work. As a resident of Georgia, I’m especially proud of the history of Georgia’s constitutional protection. It is the legacy of Baptist ministers, first appearing in our state’s constitution in the 1790s.
Though Trinity Lutheran is challenging the Missouri constitution’s provision, our own provision is at stake too. A broad ruling by the Supreme Court could require states to ignore their own constitutions and direct taxpayer money to churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship. Nothing less than our fundamental religious freedom is at stake.
The Rev. David W. Key Sr. is national board chair-elect of the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists.