KANSAS CITY – What would John Leland say about scrap tires?
Missourians, including churches that own vehicles, pay a fee to keep used tires out of streams and landfills. The fee underwrites a rebate for rubber playground surfaces. It’s open to all nonprofit groups, to keep kids safer and the environment cleaner.
Trinity Lutheran Church, in Columbia, applied for a rebate. It was rejected, but not because the money ran out. It was rejected because it is a church. Missouri’s Constitution says it can’t aid religion directly or indirectly, so Missouri says it can’t give a church a grant to advance public safety. Groups like the ACLU have threatened to sue any state official that tries to reinterpret the rule. The Church has asked the Supreme Court to declare the rule unconstitutional.
Is the Church’s request consistent with Baptist principles of church and state? What would Isaac Backus and John Leland say about the state paying for playgrounds? I think they would have supported the Church’s legal position, for three reasons:
- Scrap rubber isn’t religious. Scrap rubber isn’t used in any religious ceremony, and doesn’t violate anyone’s conscience. In the founding era, taxes were used to build houses of worship, to pay ministers for sermons, or to buy books with religious teachings. Founders like Madison were rankled “that the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment.” We should oppose state establishment of religious views, but there are no religious beliefs about playground surfaces for Missouri to establish.
- The rebate doesn’t entangle the church. Baptists are rightly wary of the strings attached to government help. In the words of Isaac Backus, churches are “most solemnly warned not to be subject to [religious] ordinances, after the doctrines and commandments of men.” Churches cannot allow government to compel religious belief or practice. Still, government provides churches with many services. Churches use the municipal water, sanitary sewer, sidewalks, landfill, fire, police, parks, and storm drains without compromising their faith. If those public health and safety programs ever interfered with the Church’s religious affairs, Baptists would truck in their own water and open a Cooperative Program landfill. But the scrap rebate had even fewer strings than municipal water: it was a one-time payment, without any future requirements; hence, no strings. No church must apply, but a church could decide to apply without violating Baptist principles.
- Religious opinions can’t be civil burdens. As much as John Leland opposed taxes for religious practices, he also opposed religious tests for government jobs and benefits. Leland’s rule was that “no man’s religious opinions shall in any wise effect his civil capacity.” Backus argued that ministers and churches should use the same laws as anyone else to collect their promised salaries, not special tax laws. Here, the State of Missouri is basing civil benefits on religion, without good reason. Our Baptist forefathers would have recognized Missouri’s rule for what it is: unconstitutional religious discrimination.