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Walker HeadshotBy Executive Director J. Brent Walker

Last month in this column, I began a series addressing indispensable principles that have continued to inform my understanding of the proper relationship between church and state during my time at the Baptist Joint Committee.

In that space, I addressed the importance of governmental neutrality — neither advancing nor inhibiting religion. Few issues have tested that principle more than religious institutions seeking government funds — often taking the form of vouchers for parochial education or grants to fund religious ministries.

Indeed, in recent days, advocates of school vouchers have observed a so-called “School Choice Week,” the Tennessee Legislature is moving a robust voucher bill, and the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to review a case in which a Missouri church is arguing not only that state support for secular aspects of its ministry is constitutionally permitted, but that the church is actually entitled to that funding.

Yes, it is critical that we understand the church-state fundament that government must not subsidize religion. Here’s why.

There are theological reasons why many have opposed government funding of religion, and the Baptist Joint Committee has fought tirelessly for eight decades to prevent it. Jesus told us to render unto the Emperor what is the Emperor’s, but nowhere do we see a call for the Emperor rendering unto religion a discrete and palatable benefit. Never in Jesus’ ministry does he seek help from Herod or a shekel from Caesar. The hallmark passages on soul freedom and religious liberty (e.g., Galatians 5:1, 2 Corinthians 3:17, 1 Peter 2:16-17) suggest the importance of government leaving religion alone or, in some cases, protecting religion; but nowhere do we find any warrant for government coughing up coins from its coffers to support religion.

Based in large part on understanding of Scripture, our denominational tradition as Baptists says “no” to attempts to subsidize religion with public funds. Baptists have always fought against efforts to snuggle up to government for that kind of support.

Article XVII of the Baptist Faith and Message, drafted in 1925 and amended in 1963, says, “The church should not resort to the civil power to carry on its work. … The state has no right to impose taxes for the support of any form of religion.” When the Southern Baptist Convention modified the Baptist Faith and Message in 2000, this section remained untouched.

Historical experience confirms the notion that government must not funnel funds to religion. What has been called the “Original Faith-based Initiative” — Patrick Henry’s attempt to pass in Virginia a bill to provide tax money to pay for the teaching of religion — was thwarted and defeated by James Madison and many Baptists, leading to the passage of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1786. In that precursor to the First Amendment, Jefferson observed that “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical.”

As a matter of constitutional precept, government must not subsidize religion. Under the “no establishment” clause, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that government must not fund in any fashion houses of worship and other pervasively religious organizations, such as denominations or seminaries.

The Court has also ruled, however, that religiously affiliated organizations — social service agencies, hospitals and colleges, for example — may sometimes receive government funds, but those funds must be cabined off and not used for religious purposes.

Even though the High Court has loosened the reins somewhat on indirect aid to religious institutions (e.g., educational equipment and school vouchers), it makes clear that direct monetary contributions of taxpayer dollars create “special Establishment Clause dangers” (Mitchell v. Helms, 2000). And, most states have provisions in their own constitutions that give even more protection than the Court has interpreted the federal Establishment Clause to provide.

And finally, enlightened self-interest tells us that it’s a bad idea for government to try to fund religion.

Government always regulates what it funds. As my friend Bill Wilson explained it years ago, a fiscal “pat on the back from Uncle Sam” will someday turn into a “hostile shove by Big Brother.” Moreover, relying on the public till for support creates an unhealthful dependency on government and tends to sap religion of its vitality. Churches and other religious bodies must not give up their autonomy, their unique witness, or their prophetic critique by trading that freedom for governmental largeness.

From the February 2016 Report from the Capital. Click here to read the next story.