Getting Taxpayer-Funded Free Stuff Is not “Religious Liberty”

By: Ryan McMaken

There seems to be some confusion among religious columnists as to what constitutes religious freedom and what does not. 

In a recent column for Crisis, Thomas Ascik claims that the US Supreme Court’s ruling inTrinity Lutheran v. Comer is a victory for “the free exercise of religion.” 

The ruling essentially states that church organization can now receive government grants for amenities and activities that are not specifically religious activities. In the case of Trinity Lutheran specifically, the church had applied for a government grant to repave its playground with recycled automobile tires. 

The state of Missouri denied the grant to the church on the grounds that it was a religious organization. Now SCOTUS has ruled such exclusionary policies are unconstitutional. 

That’s fine as far as it goes. I have no more of a problem with Trinity Lutheran receiving state funds than with Secular Daycare Brand X receiving them. In both cases, the taxpayers have been ripped off and their money handed over to someone else. The fact that Trinity Lutheran is a church is not the problem in this equation. 

But, let’s not pretend that getting a government grant has anything to do with the free exercise of religion or religious liberty. In no way did the grant-selection process mean that Trinity Lutheran or its membership was prevented from freely exercising its faith. As a result of the grant going to some other organization, the building was not seized by the state, the members were not silenced, and the church’s publications were not censored. 

The claim that government grants are equal to freedom here is no more convincing than the claim made by certain feminists that a woman does not enjoy “personal freedom” unless the taxpayers pay for her contraception. 

The truth, of course is that refusing a government grant for something — whether it be contraception or the repaving of a playground — does not constitute a violation of rights. 

On the other hand, when the state seizes money from private parties in the form of tax dollars, it does indeed restrict religious liberty. 

For example, every tax dollar collected in taxes from the membership of Trinity Lutheran means one dollar fewer than the members can elect to donate to the church. Every dollar taxed means one dollar less to be spent on bibles, or hymnals, or a soup kitchen run by the church.

This fact illustrates why freedom of religion, like freedom of speech, is just another type of property right. After all, if the members of Trinity Luthern (or any other organization) are free from the impoverishing effects of taxation and regulation, then those very people will be more free to support the religious programs and communications they wish. 

This is why Murray Rothbard preferred the precision of property rights to the vague — and thus more easily violated — “human rights” that pertain to speech and religion. 

According to Rothbard

Take, for example, the “human right” of free speech. Freedom of speech is supposed to mean the right of everyone to say whatever he likes. But the neglected question is: Where? Where does a man have this right? He certainly does not have it on property on which he is trespassing. In short, he has this right only either on his own property or on the property of someone who has agreed, as a gift or in a rental contract, to allow him on the premises. In fact, then, there is no such thing as a separate “right to free speech”; there is only a man’s property right: the right to do as he wills with his own or to make voluntary agreements with other property owners.

Applied to religion, property rights means that any group of people must be free to exercise their religion freely wherever the owner is willing to let them do it. Anyone who voluntary wishes to take part in a groups religious services must be free to do so and anyone who wishes to read religious materials distributed by the church must be free to accept it or buy it. Churches must be free to donate whatever materials or services they like to whomever they like. Provided the recipient freely accepts it. 

RELATED: “Discrimination” Isn’t About Religion, It’s About Private Property by Ryan McMaken

Thus, no extra right to exercise religion is necessary when people’s property rights are respected. 

On the other hand, when church organizations — or anyone else — seeks to tax someone else in order to receive a “grant” then this is the exact opposite of religious liberty. It is nothing more than violating someone else’s property to receive a free gift. The tax dollars taken from taxpayers to pay for the repaving of a playground are dollars that could have been used by those taxpayers to support their own religious causes, their own speech, and their own freedoms, all of which also stem from basic property rights. 

Obviously, church organizations are no more guilty of this than the myriad of non-religious non-profits that live off taxpayer funds. And, Ascik has a point in noting that the state of Missouri’s policies are inequitable. Indeed, if that grant money the Trinity Lutheran seeks ends up going to a militantly secularist organization that teaches people to despise Christians, then the taxpayers of Trinity Lutheran may actually be paying some other organization to attack them. 

The answer to this problem isn’t to give more grants to Trinity Lutheran, however. The answer is to end the grant program and the taxes that support it. 

Real Threats to Religious Liberty

Ascik’s final error is in confusing real threats to religious liberty with the fake threat found within Trinity Lutheran v. Comer. 

Ascik does identify some: 

In … Hosanna Tabor (2012), the Court unanimously held that federal disability law could not interfere in hiring decisions of a Lutheran churchand its school. And in the Hobby Lobby (2014) decision and the remand of the Little Sisters of the Poor case (2016) to the lower courts, the Supreme Court effectively ruled that Christian people must be allowed to live their faith all the time, including in business, not just on Sunday morning.

Ascik is correct there that all of these cases posed real threats to religious liberty. In each case, government regulations placed mandates on religious organizations that either directly violated the exercise of religion or hobbled the ability of a church organization to bring on personnel who reflected the values of the organization. Indeed, in the cases of Hobby Lobby and the Little Sisters, the government placed a direct mandate on a religious organization to pay for activities those organizations viewed as contrary to their religious views. 

This is a true violation of the free exercise of religion. 

But, in this case too, a simple respect for property rights solves the problem and does not require any special right of “religious freedom.” All that is necessary is to allow organization to hire and fire whom they wish, and pay for whatever type of insurance they wish. 

Similarly, these organizations could support their own cause by not asking the taxpayers to pay for their playgrounds or for any other free gift. 

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