Derek H. Davis*

Abstract:  This Article suggests that the Mitchell v. Helms decision, and the course on which its sets us—offering government aid to religion as a social good—is a blunder that will have serious adverse consequences for the vital role that religion plays in American society. The intention of aiding religion through the beneficent emasculation of traditional tests of government establishment observed in Helms is just the latest instance of our recurrent attempts to kill American religion with kindness. This process is spurred on by a perceived national crisis following tragedies like those in Paducah, Kentucky and Littleton, Colorado. This Article suggests that while the United States has largely resisted the temptation to alter the inherent wisdom of the system, recent political and judicial changes make the First Amendment and American religious groups that depend on it more vulnerable.


Never before in U.S. history has there been so much attention paid to relieving the supposed malaise enveloping the nation’s schools. Politicians, religious leaders, academics, even eccentric industry moguls have offered countless proposals aimed at correcting various maladies that have crept into the once vibrant American educational system, the institutions of which now often are portrayed as violent, underfunded detention centers for the nation’s youth.1 Tragedies on public school campuses like those that occurred in Paducah, Kentucky and Littleton, Colorado have generated a sense of [*PG1036]desperation throughout the country. The nation particularly was staggered by the magnitude of the crime at Columbine High School in Littleton where, on April 20, 1999, classmates Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold executed twelve fellow students and one teacher and left twenty-three wounded before taking their own lives.2 In the weeks and months after Columbine, articles appeared in American religious journals, as Christian and other spiritual leaders voiced their perception of the carnage as yet another example of American moral decay centered at the very heart of the nation—the public school system. Even advertisements in these journals addressed the tragedy. An ad in the October, 2000 issue of Citizen, the journal of the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family, was entitled “After Columbine What Will You Do?” and began with the statement “On November 17, 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the Ten Commandments out of schools,”3 with the obvious implication that the Court’s Stone v. Graham decision to which it referred was a contributory factor in the Columbine tragedy. Conservative religious groups, convinced of the connection between Supreme Court decisions and school violence, have set about once again to find ways in which to gain official sanction for the “return” of religious practice to public school classrooms.4 There is activity on other fronts as well.

Constitutional prohibitions on returning religious exercises to public schools have led many to private school alternatives. Religious schools in particular, without constitutional impediments to sectarian religious activities, increasingly are perceived by some to be the answer to the so-called moral vacuum that plagues the public schools.5 But religious schools often are woefully underfunded, lacking the money to adequately compensate teachers and the capital necessary to stock their institutions with equipment and materials comparable [*PG1037]to their public school counterparts.6 This state of affairs has lent support to legislative efforts to provide government aid to private religious schools via vouchers and other instruments. In concert with these legislative maneuvers, the United States Supreme Court’s recent Mitchell v. Helms decision erodes constitutional prohibitions against government aid to religious schools by dismantling prior tests that were developed to determine Establishment Clause violations.7 The plurality opinion in Helms amplifies the call for a religious booster shot as a solution to the nation’s perceived moral decline and the melancholy in American schools, both public and private.8

Public fear in the wake of tragedies like Columbine and public frustration over the inadequate funding of American private schools have begun to soften our nation on one of its founding principles—the separation of church and state. For many this “softening” is a welcomed change. Advocates of the so-called “equal treatment” of parochial education have been heartened by the Helms decision, contending that the separationist policies of government historically have harmed private religious schools by denying them access to resources that otherwise would be at their disposal were those schools not religiously affiliated. Carl Esbeck states that “[t]o increasing numbers of Americans, strict separation presents a cruel choice between suffering funding discrimination or forced secularization.”9 These supposed coercive and discriminatory elements of church-state separation are common arguments among those favoring greater governmental accommodation of religious institutions of all kinds.10 As this Article will show, however, the evidence proves that church-state separation has served to benefit rather than harm American religious vitality.11 Furthermore, this Article will demonstrate that attempts to alleviate the alleged “harm” of separation inevitably involve the forfeiture of relig[*PG1038]ion’s sacred space under the First Amendment and the ultimate denigration of religious institutions to the status of social service organizations.12 This Article will show how the ostensibly benign intent of bureaucrats to subsidize our parochial schools only can lead to irresolvable complexity and the despiritualization of religious organizations¾organizations upon which we depend as cultural counterweights to the often morally deficient bureaucracies of secular society.13

The arguments set forth in this Article undoubtedly will appear to some as melodrama. Many may ask how simply altering our course from a system of church-state separation to government accommodation of religion could possibly reconstitute our nation in such a way as to cause it injury. Nonetheless, government’s best intentions often result in its greatest blunders. It will be suggested here that Helms and the course on which it sets us—offering government aid to religion as a social good—is a blunder that will have serious adverse consequences for the vital role that religion plays in American society.14

Before one can comprehend the potential damage to American religious vitality caused by government benevolence, one first must recognize that the durability of a nation’s spirit is conditioned heavily on the maintenance of separation between its two dominant institutional forms—the political and the religious. Baron de Montesquieu, recognizing the horrors of the church-state monism of eighteenth-century France, observed that the way to kill the vitality of religion is through government “favor.”15 Similarly, Alexis de Tocqueville, having surveyed the American cultural landscape a century later, expressed his insight that “[s]o long as a religion derives its strength from sentiments, instincts, and passions . . . it can brave the assaults of time;” however, “when a religion chooses to rely on the interests of this world, it becomes almost as fragile as all earthly powers.”16 For de Tocqueville, it was no coincidence that it is in America “where the Christian religion has kept the greatest real power over men’s souls.”17 The potential damage of Helms to the preservation of the uniquely [*PG1039]American ethos observed by de Tocqueville and others only can be discerned by recognizing that the American constitutional system is uniquely susceptible to institutional subtleties, especially those that attempt to benefit religion through favor.18 It is considerably ironic that the American church-state structure is able to withstand sledgehammer assaults like the great cultural schisms precipitated during the Civil and Vietnam Wars and the official attacks on liberal and pacifist denominations during the McCarthy era.19 Yet, in marked contrast to this resiliency, there is vulnerability to the American system and to all church-state systems in modern pluralistic societies. That vulnerability is perhaps best illustrated by the church-state partnerships of modern Europe, where statistics on religious belief and practice reflect a pale religiosity even though religion is given “equal treatment,” as compared to the United States with its tradition of church-state separation.20 This essay will analyze those systems and attempt to discern what may be learned from the experience of other modern industrialized and pluralistic societies.21

The intention of aiding religion through the beneficent emasculation of traditional tests of government establishment observed in Helms is just the latest instance of our recurrent attempts to kill American religion with kindness.22 Perceived national crises often precipitate these calls for constitutional adjustment. To date, our nation largely has resisted the temptation to alter the inherent wisdom of our system. However, recent political and judicial changes make the First Amendment and the American religious groups that depend on it more vulnerable to manipulation than we have ever witnessed in our lifetimes. The plurality opinion in Helms serves as perhaps the boldest challenge yet to the traditional American understanding of the appropriate relationship between church and state.23

[*PG1040]I.  Mitchell v. Helms

One might suggest that Mitchell v. Helms is merely another winding curve in the Supreme Court’s meandering journey, as seen in its complex set of government-aid-to-religion cases.24 Indeed, scholars have been keen to observe the lack of consistency in the Court’s decisions and even have noted inconsistencies among the opinions of the Justices themselves. For example, William Lee Miller, in The First Liberty: Religion and the American Republic, characterized the unpredictability of Justice William O. Douglas’s opinions in church-state cases as resembling “the homeward journey of a New Year’s Eve reveler.”25 In fact, the Court never has established an absolute separation between church and state in cases involving government aid to church-related schools. In 1930, in Cochran v. Louisiana State Board of Education, the Court determined that a state could provide secular textbooks to parochial school students directly so long as it avoided providing aid to the religious schools themselves.26 This model for government aid to religious schools became known as the “child benefit theory” and has served the Supreme Court well, even though Helms now threatens to render it obsolete.27

Similar decisions allowing various forms of governmental aid include the famous Everson v. Board of Education that incorporated the Establishment Clause and that, in spite of its “high wall” separationist language, allowed public school districts to provide transportation to children attending private religious schools.28 Everson provides an interesting contrast to Helms observed in the wording of the respective opinions by which these and all church-state cases illumine a particular Court’s disposition toward the First Amendment.29 In Everson,, the Court recognized that its ruling in favor of a public program providing transportation to children attending religious schools might be misinterpreted as a blanket endorsement of all government aid not only to the students of religious schools but to the schools them[*PG1041]selves.30 To make clear the true intention of the Court, Justice Black gave perhaps the most detailed, though some would claim erroneous, description of the First Amendment ever written by a member of the United States Supreme Court:

The “establishment of religion” clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or non-attendance. No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect “a wall of separation between church and State.”31

Thus the Everson decision, while upholding the constitutionality of the New Jersey program that provided public transportation to parochial school students, reinforced clearly its interpretation of the First Amendment as providing for a “wall of separation” between church and state.32

Whereas the Everson decision appears fearful of misinterpretation, the plurality decision in Helms is fearless, even reckless, in attempting to strike down principles that have guided church-state jurisprudence for the past five decades.33 Helms involved Chapter 2 of the Education Consolidation and Improvement Act of 1981 that enabled federal funds to go to state and local education agencies that in turn lend educational materials and equipment to public and private elementary and secondary schools to implement “secular, neutral, [*PG1042]and nonideological” programs.34 The case focused specifically on the distribution of Chapter 2 materials and equipment in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, including library books, computers, video equipment, laboratory instruments and other resources.35 Approximately thirty percent of the Chapter 2 funds allocated in Jefferson Parish went to private schools, and, in the fiscal year 1986–1987, forty-six private schools participated in the program, forty-one of which were religiously affiliated.36 The plurality opinion, authored by Justice Clarence Thomas, relied heavily on the establishment tests articulated in Agostini v. Felton in affirming the constitutionality of the Chapter 2 program.37 The members of the plurality (Justices Thomas, Scalia, Kennedy, and Rehnquist) contended that Agostini “brought some clarity to our case law” by collapsing the three-prong Lemon test that assessed whether a statute: 1) has a secular purpose; 2) has the primary effect of advancing or inhibiting religion; or 3) creates an excessive entanglement between government and religion; into a simpler two-part test that evaluates whether a statute results in religious indoctrination or defines its recipients by reference to religion.38 Echoing Agostini, ,the members of the Helms plurality determined that “Chapter 2 does not result in governmental indoctrination, because it determines eligibility for aid neutrally, allocates that aid based on the private choices of the parents of schoolchildren, and does not provide aid that has an impermissible content. Nor does Chapter 2 define its recipients by reference to religion.”39

The plurality opinion in Helms is unique, however, not in its determination that a government aid program that includes religious schools is constitutional, but for its sweeping rejection of past tests of [*PG1043]government establishment and its almost exclusive reliance on the principle of “neutrality” as a constitutional determinant.40 One of the past criteria that the plurality opinion attempts to eliminate is the so-called “direct/indirect” distinction that determines violations of the Establishment Clause based on the nature of the recipients of government aid.41 Under this assessment, if a sectarian institution benefits “directly” from a government program, that program is unconstitutional.42 By contrast, if a student at a religious school directly receives a government benefit and the school that the student attends benefits only indirectly, the program is constitutional according to the direct/indirect criterion.43 The plurality in Helms, however, insists that this test, which the Court reaffirmed in Grand Rapids School District v. Ball, merely attempts to prevent the “subsidization” of religion and that recent cases like Agostini better address the same issues through the principles of “neutrality” and “private choice.”44 According to the opinion, “[i]f aid to schools, even ‘direct aid,’ is neutrally available and, before reaching or benefiting any religious school, first passes through the hands (literally or figuratively) of numerous private citizens who are free to direct the aid elsewhere, the government has not provided any ‘support of religion’ . . . .”45

Justice O’Connor’s concurring opinion criticizes the plurality for its rejection of the “direct/indirect” distinction as a criterion for the determination of government establishment of religion.46 O’Connor notes the plurality’s use of Witters v. Washington Department of Services for the Blind and Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District to substantiate its claim that the direct/indirect principle effectively has been replaced by the broader conceptual criterion of “private choice.”47 Yet, [*PG1044]Justice O’Connor observes that “we decided Witters and Zobrest on the understanding that the aid was provided directly to the individual student who, in turn, made the choice of where to put that aid to use.”48 Indeed, Justice Rehnquist, who authored the Zobrest opinion, was careful to distinguish as impermissible those “direct grants of government aid” that “relieved sectarian schools of costs they otherwise would have borne in educating their students.”49 How is it that Justice Rehnquist now joins the plurality in Helms in concluding that direct government aid to a religious institution may be constitutionally permissible?50 Perhaps the answer is found in the rather odd parenthetical comment in the plurality opinion that if aid “first passes through the hands (literally or figuratively) of numerous private citizens who are free to direct the aid elsewhere, the government has not provided any ‘support of religion’ . . . .”51 It seems that this figurative passing of aid through the hands of private citizens greatly broadens the reach of the private choice principle and, thus, makes the direct/indirect test less relevant to constitutional inquiry.52 Justice Thomas’s opinion effectively extends the concept of private choice to include not only the choices of individual students, but also the choices of the administrators of sectarian institutions who make expenditure decisions under the Chapter 2 program.53 One wishes that the plurality had provided a few examples of how government aid might figuratively pass through the hands of private citizens so as to better understand the nature and scope of the plurality’s private choice criterion.54 Regardless, the emergence of the private choice test suggests a more permissive attitude by the Court in government-aid-to-religion cases.55 This test undoubtedly will broaden the reach of government in its interactions with religious groups as compared to the more restrictive direct/indirect distinction.56

A few opening lines from Justice O’Connor’s concurring opinion in Helms testify more generally to the plurality’s radical broadening of government establishment tests:

[*PG1045]I write separately because, in my view, the plurality announces a rule of unprecedented breadth for the evaluation of Establishment Clause challenges to government school aid programs. Reduced to its essentials, the plurality’s rule states that government aid to religious schools does not have the effect of advancing religion so long as the aid is offered on a neutral basis and the aid is secular in content. The plurality also rejects the distinction between direct and indirect aid, and holds that the actual diversion of secular aid by a religious school to the advancement of its religious mission is permissible.57

Justice O’Connor’s observation of the plurality’s rejection of the divertibility of funds as a constitutional issue undoubtedly is based on a comment in the plurality opinion that “the evidence of actual diversion and the weakness of the safeguards against actual diversion are not relevant to the constitutional inquiry . . . .”58 Justice O’Connor noted that in Bowen v. Kendrick the Court determined that actual diversion of government funds is not permitted under the Constitution; yet, the plurality in Helms insists that divertibility of aid as an establishment test is “unworkable.”59 The plurality rejects the divertibility test because it is “boundless—enveloping all aid, no matter how trivial—and thus has only the most attenuated (if any) link to realistic concern for preventing an ‘establishment of religion.’ Presumably, for example, government-provided lecterns, chalk, crayons, pens, paper, and paintbrushes would have to be excluded from religious schools under respondents’ proposed rule.”60 These comments suggest that the plurality seeks to elevate a test of triviality above one of content.61 In other words, direct government aid to a religious school or other institution¾even if that aid is used for religious purposes¾seems now to be permissible so long as it is a trivial part of overall operations.62 Comments in the opinion also reveal the plurality’s discomfort with using divertibility as a test in government-aid-to-religion cases because almost any resource supplied by government is, in a sense, divertible.63 The plurality states that “any aid, with or without content, is ‘di[*PG1046]vertible’ in the sense that it allows schools to ‘divert’ resources.”64 Yet, this understanding that all aid is divertible was a primary motivation behind the construction and use of the “direct/indirect” test of government establishment that the plurality now discards as so much baggage.65 The plurality sees the potential diversion of aid after disbursement to religious institutions as beyond the government’s purview and, therefore, of no consequence to constitutional inquiry.66 After Helms, determining whether government aid is channeled to religious purposes now rests solely within the discretion of recipient institutions’ administrators.67

Not content with its effective eradication of the direct/indirect distinction and the divertibility principle, the plurality next takes aim at the “pervasively sectarian” test as a determinant of Establishment Clause violations.68 The opinion acknowledges that there was a period in which the pervasively sectarian nature of institutions aided by government programs was a consideration; however, “that period is one that the Court should regret, and it is thankfully long past.”69 The plurality states that “its relevance in our precedents is in sharp decline” and that the Court’s upholding of aid to sectarian schools in Zobrest and Agostini established new precedents that now obviate the need for determination of sectarian status of recipient organizations.70 More ominously, the opinion articulates another reason for dispensing with the pervasively sectarian principle in that “the religious nature of a recipient should not matter to the constitutional analysis, so long as the recipient adequately furthers the government’s secular purpose.”71 The above comment should strike fear in the hearts of accommodationists and separationists alike in that it seems to reveal an Erastian (subordination of church to state interests) dis[*PG1047]position of the modern Court in its church-state philosophy.72 Finally, the plurality opinion suggests that the origin of the pervasively sectarian principle is rooted in the nation’s ignominious history of anti-Catholicism, referencing the near passage of the Blaine Amendment in the 1870s, which would have denied government aid to any sectarian group, and Hunt v. McNair as evidence to support its claim.73

The plurality’s divide and conquer approach toward dismantling past establishment tests denies any synergistic quality to the functioning of those tests in determining Establishment Clause violations.74 No criterion the plurality now attempts to jettison ever functioned independently of the others. The plurality employs a form of reductionism in breaking off piece-parts and attacking them by using equally small fragments of prior decisions.75 Almost any Supreme Court test is susceptible to this style of attack; although Helms seems to be an extreme concentration of this technique.76 The result is that the direct/indirect, divertibility, and pervasively sectarian principles are virtually eradicated in one fell swoop.77

The plurality’s methods and comments in Helms demonstrate, if not hostility to, then certainly a laxity toward the First Amendment by four justices and reinforces the perception that a radical new attitude is taking shape on the Supreme Court regarding Establishment Clause jurisprudence.78 Justice O’Connor observes not only the plurality’s dismissal of past establishment tests but the radical elevation of neutrality that “comes close to assigning [neutrality] singular importance in the future adjudication of Establishment Clause challenges to government school aid programs.”79 Further, Justice O’Connor perceives the plurality’s overextension in its attempts to wipe out past establishment tests in favor of its affection for neutrality.80 Justice O’Connor states that “the plurality’s approval of actual diversion of [*PG1048]government aid to religious indoctrination is in tension with our precedents and, in any case, unnecessary to decide the instant case.”81

The sweeping nature of the plurality opinion in Helms implies more than simple dissatisfaction with prior methods in deciding First Amendment cases.82 Justice O’Connor is correct that implementation of the neutrality principle did not necessitate the abolishment of prior tests.83 Indeed, the elimination of tests such as divertibility radically conditions the nature of the neutrality that the plurality now espouses.84 Absent an obligation to monitor the ultimate use of government aid by religious institutions, how can government agencies, or the courts for that matter, be certain that the First Amendment is not being violated in programs administered under the neutrality principle? Or, has the Supreme Court’s attitude shifted so much that it no longer cares whether government funds are diverted to religious purposes?85 If so, it is ironic that the most conservative members of the Supreme Court are now supportive of a neutrality principle that makes government accountable only for neutral allocations and recipients’ initial assurances that aid will not be used for religious purposes.86

Three justices of the Supreme Court conclude that the integrity of the First Amendment cannot be assured in government-aid-to-religion programs by merely applying a neutrality principle in the absence of some system to monitor the ultimate use of disbursements.87 Justice David Souter, joined by Justices Stevens and Ginsburg in dissent, cited superficiality as the prime flaw in the plurality’s neutrality principle:

Hence, if we looked no further than evenhandedness, and failed to ask what activities the aid might support, or in fact did support, religious schools could be blessed with government funding as massive as expenditures made for the benefit of their public school counterparts, and religious missions would thrive on public money. This is why the consideration of less than universal neutrality has never been recognized as dispositive and has always been teamed with [*PG1049]attention to other facts bearing on the substantive prohibition of support for a school’s religious objective.88

Justice Souter’s statement keenly recognizes the inherent contradiction in the system the plurality now advocates: the greater the success of such neutrality-based programs in the absence of other safeguards, the more dependent religious schools will become on government favor.89 Even critics of government-aid-to-religion programs like this author initially tend to view such programs as supplemental to the overall funding of parochial institutions.90 Yet, Justice Souter rightly suggests what is not readily apparent—that because programs enabling direct government aid to religious schools now have been constitutionally legitimized, the absence of controls to limit their growth likely means a linear progression of government funds as a percentage of the overall funding of religious institutions that take part in such programs.91 It is important also to recognize that the neutrality principle will likely extend beyond programs involving only church-related schools. Neutrality undoubtedly will become this Court’s mantra for deciding the constitutionality of government aid to all types of religious institutions. Social service programs promoting the interoperability of government and religious groups under the classification of “Charitable Choice” assuredly will become subject to this minimal criteria as well. The expansion of such programs in the absence of controls will engender greater institutional interoperability and dependency, subject recipient institutions to increasing governmental oversight, and thereby begin to quash the independent spirit from the religious groups upon which society depends to counter relatively soulless government bureaucracies.

As government subsidization of religion grows via such neutral distribution programs, religion necessarily will lose its autonomy and, to some degree, its religious identity. This loss of autonomy by participant groups will result not from the specific intentions of government agencies but rather from the quite normal operations of any bureaucratic arrangement in which one organization becomes dependent upon another for funding. The assurances of politicians that government will limit its oversight in such programs to the simple guarantee [*PG1050]of neutral disbursement can be of no comfort to those advocating responsible government. If politicians are able to keep their word and government is so limited, the potential misuse of government aid is obvious in a system with no means of monitoring the ultimate use of such resources. This perhaps best describes the desired outcome in the disbursement of Chapter 2 funds addressed in Helms.92 Alternatively, if politicians are not able to keep their word and government oversight of aid distributed to religious groups is accomplished through audit and other invasive functions, even the advocates of neutrality theory should recognize that such programs would be constitutionally impermissible. In the one instance, the formal neutrality favored by the plurality in Helms inevitably leads to irresponsible government while, in the other instance, First Amendment violations are inevitable.93

II.  Missing the Mark: Neutrality and the
Reordering of Discrimination

It is debatable whether these dangerous alterations to the American church-state structure will achieve their desired objective—the elimination of discrimination against religious groups. In fact, it can be strongly argued that the greatest flaw in neutrality programs like the one given constitutional sanction in Mitchell v. Helms is that they simply miss their stated target.94 Rather than achieving their purpose of eliminating discrimination against religious groups they merely rearrange the nature of discrimination, often in favor of majority religions or those groups predisposed to receiving government subsidy. Consider the case of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example. The Witnesses’ denial of the legitimacy of the state and their prohibitions on the involvement of their membership in government activities generally restrict their participation in programs now permitted under the Court’s neutrality principle. However, advocates of neutrality might argue that such exclusions are rare, self-imposed, and result from uncoerced acts of conviction. Yet, these arguments simply do not hold.

First, to address the supposition of rarity, it should be restated that there will be no constitutional means of limiting the scope of the neutrality principle to programs providing government aid to church-[*PG1051]related schools.95 This means, therefore, that religious participation in government aid programs is not a dichotomous variable. Rather than simply identifying those religious groups that would and would not participate in school-aid programs, one might envision a continuum of religious participation in government aid programs across the full spectra of social services. This hypothetical continuum could be constructed using the stated positions of American churches regarding Charitable Choice and other programs advocating church-state partnerships. A broad range of social services inevitably will be opened up to potential church-state ventures under the neutrality principle. Religious groups that would fall on the “high participation” end of the continuum likely would include the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, while mainline Protestants and certain minority faiths like the Jehovah’s Witnesses would be placed on the “low participation” end. Certain evangelical Christian groups that have moved away from their separationist traditions would fall somewhere in the middle of this hypothetical continuum. Churches undoubtedly will pick and choose to participate in those government programs that are consistent with their beliefs and practices. Roman Catholics would participate heavily in aid to religious education programs but might reject participation in a program that provides funding to churches to provide certain family planning services. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists likely would reject all government aid programs. Some evangelical groups might accept funding to support the operation of soup kitchens while rejecting aid to support child-care centers for working moms. Far from rare, every religious group in the country would fall somewhere on this continuum of participation under any neutrality scheme, and where those religious institutions fall on this continuum would determine the level of government subsidization of the services they provide. Churches whose doctrine permits extensive participation in government programs have at the very least a financial advantage over those whose faith communities that deny such participation. The point of this construct is to illustrate that participation in the system of government subsidization of religion under the auspices of the neutrality principle is heavily conditioned by the traditions of participant faiths and that the continuum envisioned here includes all churches and undoubtedly would result in a very definite and ordered system of discrimination.

[*PG1052] Before one dismisses the discrimination in such programs as “voluntary,” we still must ask, is it uncoerced? All institutions in the United States, including the religious, have an intense interest in their own survival. Programs distributing aid under the neutrality principle offer financial inducements for religious groups to participate in certain programs that “government” desires for the nation and that may or may not conflict with certain tenets of the nation’s faith communities.96 These programs easily can be seen to tempt religious groups to go against their basic principles in order to secure government funding and receive the same benefits of other faith traditions. The key here is that not all issues addressed by such programs will fall into the black and white categories that might be associated with abortion or similar issues. It will be those programs that center on social issues more “in the gray” respecting a faith community’s belief system that will begin the erosion, or perhaps more accurately the assimilation, of our nation’s religious traditions. Consider the evangelical community that falls in the middle of this hypothetical continuum of participation and believes that a woman’s role is in the home and not in the workplace; therefore, it rejects participation in the child-care program for working moms. However, this community is not impervious to the larger society and its leaders recognize that there are working mothers among its membership. The community also recognizes that many other churches do participate in this program and receive government subsidies for their participation. Does the very existence of the government aid program for working mothers not provide a financial incentive to this evangelical community to drift away from its doctrinal position on the role of women in the family? If the community chooses to participate after buckling to popular pressure and the government-supplied financial incentive, will it later even remember its original position on this issue? Consider the possibility of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of government-aid-to-religion programs involving many of the nation’s faith traditions projected out over a few decades. One might easily predict the homogenization of America’s diverse faith traditions into a form of civil religion that encourages a malleability of doctrine shaped by the designs of government programs. And, one must remember Justice Thomas’s ominous statement that “the religious nature of a recipient should not matter to the constitu[*PG1053]tional analysis, so long as the recipient adequately furthers the government’s secular purpose.”97

Public resources inevitably will flow to those programs that are popularly affirmed by a majority of the nation to the exclusion of minority faiths. The public never will accept the “nondiscriminatory” allocation of funds to some groups, such as a “Branch Davidian Child Abuse Center” or a program to aid the development of Buddhist missions in the inner cities. It will be those causes that tend toward the center, are uncontroversial, and that receive the greatest popular support that will obtain the lion’s share of funding from government agencies. Lost in the shuffle will be those social issues of importance to minority religions and those that have little popular appeal. The result will be substantial funding of programs that attract participation by “acceptable” religions with minority groups left out, an inherently discriminatory situation.

III.  After Mitchell v. Helms: Complexity,
Confusion, and Conflict

Beyond the reordering of discrimination and the potential growth in doctrinal plasticity among American religious communities, advocates of neutrality like that advanced in Mitchell v. Helms rarely consider the enormous complexities and potential for conflict that such programs engender.98 An example of this complexity is reflected in a statement from Justice Brennan’s opinion in Lemon v. Kurtzman that “when a sectarian institution accepts state financial aid it becomes obligated under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment not to discriminate in admissions policies and faculty selection.”99 Religious schools applying for government aid administered under the neutrality principle doubtless will wish to retain their current hiring practices. What will happen when a Muslim teacher applies for a teaching position at a Jewish school and is denied employment because of her religion, especially when the applicant realizes that her tax money is helping to provide computers, books and other materials to the school? Certain justices have attempted to persuade us that these religious schools will be able to retain their autonomy in the face of such potential legal challenges. Yet, such assurances are of little value in the increasingly litigious maze of American [*PG1054]society. What about the student whose application to a religious school is rejected for the same reason and whose parents come to realize that their tax money now subsidizes certain “secular” functions of the school that rejects their child? Or perhaps a school that accepts government aid through one or more programs governed by the neutrality principle even though its teachers do not meet government certification standards and its students consistently fail to meet minimum standards on college entrance exams? Does the government intervene in such a case to ensure a proper return on its investment? Will the public demand such intervention? If the government does demand accountability, will the school be able to defend its policies and practices using the First Amendment or will it be forced to acquiesce to the government’s will and/or popular opinion? This will indeed lead to many challenges as programs expand under the sole guidance of the principles of neutrality and private choice. Complexity will arise because such programs can never be purely neutral and because Helms expanded private choice to include institutional rather than purely individual choice.100

The plurality’s application of formal neutrality suggests that judgments will not be applied or that only minimal judgments will be applied to the doctrine or ideology of groups in determining their eligibility for government aid.101 Inevitably, however, there will exist some criteria by which religious groups will be forced to qualify for aid as citizens demand accountability for their public funds. If a Wiccan school or a religious school that espouses racism as religious doctrine were to receive aid under a program whose funds were distributed on a “neutral” basis, members of the public undoubtedly would challenge such disbursements much as they now challenge government aid to the National Endowment for the Arts for funding exhibits that are perceived as detrimental to public morality. Were such a challenge ultimately to end up before the Supreme Court, it would have the opportunity to tangibly display its “neutrality.”102 The Employment Division v. Smith case serves as something of a barometer as to how the Court might rule when such challenges to the neutral disbursement of aid occur.103 In Smith, the Court determined that Oregon state law provided the necessary and sufficient neutral ground for judgments on the doctrine and practices of religious groups in determining that [*PG1055]persons using peyote in Native American ceremonies may suffer government penalties.104 Peyote use violated state narcotic laws and its use in religious ceremonies did not exempt it from such law according to the courts.105 However, many states have laws prohibiting distribution of alcohol to minors, which would make illegal the distribution of sacramental wine to minors in Catholic, Jewish, and other religious ceremonies. Yet, the Justices contributing to the majority opinion in Smith made no reference to possible implications for the religious practices of majority faiths that also violate state laws.106 The implication of the Smith case for government aid-to-religion programs is that minority faiths will discover that their practices are unacceptable only if and when they seek to participate.107 Yet, the larger point is that the plurality in Helms believes it has constructed a common sense neutrality criteria for application in government-aid-to-religion cases that is nondiscriminatory while ignoring the overtly majoritarian elements of that neutrality.108

Given the outcome in Smith, it is likely that government will find ways to restrict funding to groups like Wiccans, snake-handling Christian sects, Scientologists, Krishnas, and other minority religions for the very reason that the public will demand it. Will the public stomach government support even of secular functions in schools that also teach the traditions of witchcraft, or Rastafarianism, or Zoroastrianism, or the Branch Davidians? Again, this system of neutrality will present critical choices as legal challenges inevitably arise. If the courts rule in favor of minority groups and allow them to participate in government programs while concurrently attempting to preserve their autonomy in belief and practice, the potential for social conflict is great. A minor example of this was observed at a recent Dallas, Texas city council meeting to which a Wiccan priest was invited to lead the [*PG1056]opening prayer.109 Several audience members protested the prayer and one Christian man had to be physically restrained and led from the building when he attempted to “shout down” the Wiccan priest.110 If a Wiccan prayer at a public event can generate such hostility, one can only suppose that the public’s recognition that it is being forced to subsidize a Wiccan school could precipitate a similar if not more extreme response. Government-sanctioned discrimination is the more likely outcome, however. Can one honestly imagine the Supreme Court upholding the legitimacy of state aid to a religious school that advocates certain neo-Nazi beliefs such as the extermination of Jews?111 Yet, how can the Court reject the participation of such a group in a program offered under the neutrality principle when merely holding such beliefs is not illegal?

The Supreme Court’s almost exclusive reliance on the neutrality principle in conjunction with its radically broadened conception of “private choice” will enable substantial funding of private religious schools through government aid.112 Yet, there must certainly exist a level at which these institutions will begin to lose their religious identities and assume more secular ones based upon the level of public funding. Again, an understanding of the machinations of bureaucracy suggest this to be so; yet, tangible evidence already exists in American history that similar shifts in the funding of religious institutions have resulted in the eventual loss of religious identity.113 In The Soul of the American University, George Marsden chronicles forces that reshaped the nation’s university system from a complex of sectarian colleges established as part of a “religious-cultural vision” to the largely secular system of today.114 One of those forces was a monetary incentive provided by one of the largest benefactors of American universities, the Carnegie Foundation, in the early twentieth century to schools in exchange for them dropping their denominational identities.115 Some [*PG1057]schools found the temptation irresistible and opted to drop their religious associations. Marsden suggests that funding constraints were a critical factor in reshaping the American university system such that students today attending schools like Harvard University, the University of Chicago, and Stanford University are rarely cognizant of the original religious affiliations of those institutions. Is it not possible that the same fading of religious identity could occur over time to primary and secondary religious schools as participation in government-funded programs increases?

IV.  Neutrality and the Morphing of the Church into a Secular Service Organization

A primary criticism of the neutrality principle offered in this Article has been that, in practical terms, neutral disbursements of public aid to religious institutions cannot remain purely neutral.116 Some criteria must exist by which government agencies determine their beneficiaries; however, establishing a minimal qualification that simply verifies that the practices of recipients conform to law will not prevent conflict over the nature of groups receiving aid. As an analogy, one can look to the social conflict resulting from attempts to implement programs offering publicly funded abortion services.117 Although abortion is a legal practice under the Constitution, religious groups throughout the country have protested such programs on the grounds that they force individuals who consider abortion to be immoral to fund this practice.118 Certain churches have advocated civil disobedience in efforts to prevent this perceived form of government coercion; and, in some cases, individual Christians have resorted to violent acts directed at publicly funded abortion clinics.119 One may also look to the decision in Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah to see the potential for conflict.120 In 1993, the Supreme Court there determined that the city council of Hialeah, Florida had improperly established ordinances to restrict the animal sacrifice practices of the Santeria religion, responding to public concerns that these practices were “inconsistent with public morals, peace or [*PG1058]safety.”121 The Court found that the ordinances were unconstitutional in targeting the practices of a particular church and it overturned the court of appeals ruling that upheld them.122 Given the Court’s decision in this case, is the government not obligated to allow this church or any of its affiliates such as a school to participate in programs administered under the neutrality principle?123 How might the public react to the realization that it is helping to fund certain functions of a church that practices animal sacrifice? The argument here is that by again forcing the public to fund religious schools or other institutions that may or may not adhere to beliefs and practices consistent with those of the larger society, an inherently contentious situation is created.

Scholars have sought to shape the nature of neutrality such that it supports the administration of programs that are truly neutral and yet less susceptible to frictions arising between the free exercise of religious groups and the values of the larger society.124 Stephen Monsma’s conception of “substantive neutrality” attempts to add greater depth to the neutrality principle and to provide an alternative to the Court’s “formal neutrality” that denies the need to acknowledge the religious identities of parties in First Amendment adjudication.125 This is necessary because the Court’s use of formal neutrality has resulted in decisions like Smith where, as Professor Monsma observes, “special protections for religious minorities are not mandated by the First Amendment. [The Court] has held that as long as regulatory policies of general application do not single out religious groups for discriminatory treatment, the Free Exercise Clause does not require special protections for the practices of religious groups.”126 Thus, the Smith decision was the logical consequence of the Court’s application of its “formal neutrality” concurrent with its loosening of limitations on government establishment.127 Professor Monsma’s conception of substantive neutrality is a more thoughtful accommodationist standard than the Court’s current neutrality principle and is, therefore, deserving of consideration.128

[*PG1059] To begin, “substantive neutrality” differs from the Court’s application of formal neutrality in the sense that substantive neutrality is concerned with the effect of government action rather than its mere intent.129 According to Monsma, substantive neutrality asks “whether the challenged government action has the effect of creating either incentives or disincentives for persons to follow their sincere religious beliefs.”130 This is a nice beginning because it immediately relieves the offense of the Smith decision.131 In that case, the state’s passage of a law that made illegal the use of the hallucinogenic drug peyote without providing an exemption for its religious use had the effect of creating a disincentive to religious practice by threatening the arrest of persons who participate in this practice.132 The government’s action, therefore, would have been found unconstitutional using the substantive neutrality principle.133 Substantive neutrality then at the very least eliminates the lax superficiality of formal neutrality by determining that government has a responsibility to assess the effects of its actions.134 Presumably, use of this principle would have expanded constitutional inquiry in the Mitchell v. Helms case as well in that substantive neutrality would have required that a determination be made as to whether aid under the Chapter 2 program had the effect of providing incentives or disincentives to religious practice.135 While the Court’s decision in Helms under substantive neutrality might well be the same, the greater depth of substantive neutrality could potentially lead to a resurrection of the divertibility test, for example, because the effect of government aid could not be fairly determined without an assessment of the ultimate disposition of that aid.136

So, if substantive neutrality can help prevent discrimination against religious groups in their provision of social services while providing greater protections of religious liberty, why is it not superior to both the formal neutrality now espoused by the Supreme Court and the separationist principles developed in prior Court decisions?137 In the case of the former, it is agreed that substantive neutrality is supe[*PG1060]rior to the Court’s formal neutrality as applied in Helms.138 However, substantive neutrality still suffers from certain deficiencies vis-ą-vis separation that have to do with the determination of the nature of services provided by religious groups, the classification of such groups, and how such decisions are made.139 As will be seen, these functions are critical to preservation of the autonomy of religious groups and to preservation of the rights given such groups under the First Amendment.140

One of the critical provisions of Professor Monsma’s substantive neutrality is that it “includes secularly based systems of belief under the scope of the First Amendment’s freedom of religion provisions. To favor religious systems of belief over secular systems of belief, or vice versa, would be a violation of governmental religious neutrality.”141 However, a caveat is added such that not just any secular system is included but rather only “secular belief structures that serve as functional equivalents in the lives of their adherents as religious belief structures do in the lives of the devout.”142 Three criteria are introduced under substantive neutrality in the determination that a secular “belief system” should be granted protections under the First Amendment with regard to those beliefs, that: “(1) they are sincerely held over a period of time; (2) they play an integrative or overarching role in one’s life; and (3) they involve one in some sort of communal or shared experiences.”143 These criteria extend greatly the reach of First Amendment protections to groups of all kinds.144 A non-profit organization, for example, that exists to provide aid to children in developing countries easily can be seen to meet the criteria above. It would require only that the proprietors sincerely believe over a period of time that their purpose in life is to aid poor children in underdeveloped countries.145 The communal experience requirement is met simply through interaction with the children themselves.146

Yet, this greater inclusiveness that offers First Amendment protections to secular organizations in the interest of nondiscrimination will have a corrosive effect over time in society’s understanding of [*PG1061]what is religious. Worse, in the context of government aid programs, will it not be government agencies that determine recipients and thereby become the ultimate arbiters of what are sincerely held beliefs worthy of First Amendment protections? Even if government programs could be purely neutral regarding their recipients (as has been challenged above), the result would be the gradual assimilation of secular and religious groups providing social services into one indistinguishable whole. The continued association of religious and secular institutions as categorized by government agencies will lead to simplistic associations in the mind of the public and the loss of religious identity of sectarian organizations.

Professor Monsma provides a hint of this possibility in his determination that “the Supreme Court got it right in the Rosenberger v. Rector & Visitors of the University of Virginia case.”147 In Rosenberger, the Court determined that a religious group at the University of Virginia had the same right as secular groups to be subsidized by the university (with student activity fees) in its publications.148 Monsma states that “[o]nce the University made the decision to fund student publications, it could not single out religiously based publications for the handicap or disadvantage of no-funding.”149 Yet, again what is missed in this attempt to eliminate perceived discrimination is what James Madison and other founders recognized was essential to preservation of the identity and autonomy of religious groups in this country.150 In his famous Memorial and Remonstrance, Madison states that religion must remain beyond the “cognizance” of civil government, not merely neutral in its eyes.151 This statement is no mere hyperbole but rather the recognition of a critical subtlety in church-state relations that is being lost in the United States today. Once government becomes “cognizant” of religion and begins to treat it neutrally, it inevitably begins the transformation of religious institutions into “one among many” similar organizations by using its authority to functionally associate religious and secular groups in the same categories. In reflecting on Rosenberger, one observes that the religion clauses of the First [*PG1062]Amendment are unnecessary to decide the case at all.152 The freedom of speech provision would suffice to enable government subsidization of the publications of religious groups alongside secular organizations.153 The religion clauses exist for an entirely separate purpose—to ensure that religion retains its sacred space in our society that perhaps even the founders realized would be challenged by the encroachments of liberalism and modernism.154

The danger posed by the concept of substantive neutrality is that religious groups will become nondescript members of a social service organization class vying for governmental aid along with their “secular equivalents.”155 Church-state separation, by contrast, ensures the identity of religious groups as religious so long as “they” choose to identify themselves in that way.156 No external authority compares them to supposed secular equivalents in identifying potential participants in government programs. Under separation, there is no need for governmental oversight or audit of religious organizations, nor is there the temptation of religious groups to stray from doctrine in order to qualify for government subsidization.157 And, as has been demon[*PG1063]strated, the supposed discrimination of separationism is only reordered under any system of neutrality, not eliminated. Ironically, the plurality opinion in Helms creates a situation where government is obligated to support certain religious groups that might not be self-sustaining in the free market of ideas because it must fund all groups without respect to doctrine or ideology.158 This grants to faith groups that are receptive to government subsidy something of an entitlement in their provision of social services that are supported by government programs—an improper entitlement under the American constitutional system. Government has the responsibility to protect minority ideas and the ability of proponents to articulate them, but it should not influence the degree of pluralism in society by subsidizing religiously or ideologically based groups, even if it claims to do so in a neutral fashion.

The potential damage done to American religion by systems of neutrality in the interest of simply reordering what inherently will be inequitable is a far greater price than can ever be justified by its marginal benefit. Many entrepreneurs in American society will testify that the cost of involvement in government programs designed to “aid” their businesses is simply not worth the benefits received.159 Government bureaucrats are harshly criticized as the bane of the free enterprise system, and it is illogical to conclude that those same officials can function more effectively in dealings with religious groups while juggling the additional complexity of First Amendment limitations.160 These obvious contradictions demonstrate the desperation of those who insist that government-aided religion is the cure for the nation’s supposed malaise.

V.  Neutrality and the Future of American Society:
The European Model

Recent political and judicial changes in the United States portend a future where church-state partnerships administered under the auspices of neutrality are likely to burgeon. The hotly contested election of George W. Bush as the forty-third president of the United States and the likelihood that the new president will be required to [*PG1064]make at least one Supreme Court nomination during his administration are ominous signs that the country may soon change in a fundamental way.161 Bush’s support of school vouchers and Charitable Choice and his past appointment of conservative justices in Texas suggest that the balance of power in the Supreme Court soon will shift decidedly in favor of church-state partnerships and an expanded use of formal neutrality in deciding government-aid-to-religion cases.162 It is reasonable then to consider the potential ramifications of this past election to the restructuring of the traditional American church-state relationship and the reshaping of the American ethos.

Anyone reading the plurality opinion in Mitchell v. Helms and speculating on the likely church-state views of any potential Bush appointee to the Supreme Court can only come to the conclusion that today’s plurality will become tomorrow’s majority.163 The omen from Justice Souter’s dissenting opinion in Helms is clear: “there is no mistaking the abandonment of doctrine that would occur if the plurality were to become a majority.”164 And, one must remember that the plurality in Helms advocated the more offensive formal neutrality rather than the substantive neutrality advanced by Stephen Monsma that is more sensitive to the free exercise rights of religious minorities.165 Given the number of school voucher programs on state legislative dockets throughout the nation, the advocates of Charitable Choice programs in the United States Congress and other factors, there can be little doubt that church and state are soon to be joined at the hip in our culture. What will this mean for American society, and how might we predict cultural changes resulting from recent American political decisions? To assess the potential changes, it is appropriate to examine existing countries that are close to the United States in terms of their industrialization and demographic composition, yet founded on church-state principles that enable the neutral treatment of religious institutions by government.

Proponents of neutrality often put forward their alternative to church-state separation as a new model in social theory. In fact, however, the neutral treatment of religion by government has been a [*PG1065]standard social construct of many European countries for centuries, extending back to the Treaty of Augsburg in 1555, the Edict of Nantes in 1598, and other “religious rights” documents that legitimized faiths outside the Roman Catholic tradition.166 If neutrality is indeed good for religion and considering its well-established tradition in Europe, we should be able to identify one or more European countries that exhibit a thriving religiosity based on this church-state model. The European continent also offers a sampling of countries that are close to the United States in terms of their religious pluralism and liberal political institutions; the essential differentiator is that most are structured on principles of church-state accommodation.167 Therefore, European societies offer perhaps the best examples of where American society is headed religiously if it continues down the path of neutral treatment.

A statistical comparison of European and American religion reveals some quite startling contrasts. Poll results from 1994 revealed that 44 percent of the American people attend at least one church service per week as compared to 10 percent in France, 14 percent in Great Britain and 18 percent in the former West Germany.168 A full 82 percent of Americans described themselves as “religious,” compared to 48 percent in France, 54 percent in West Germany, and 55 percent in Great Britain.169 It is not only the statistics but the statistical “trends” of European religiosity that demonstrate significant dissimilarities from American indicators of religious adherence. In the Netherlands, for example, between 1959 and 1986 the percentage of Roman Catholics among the general population dropped from 37 to 31 percent, the percentage professing membership in the two largest Reformed denominations dropped from 38 to 21 percent, and those stating “no religious preference” climbed from 21 to 44 percent.170 England demonstrates a similar trend where the “rate of active church membership” between 1970 and 1990 dropped from 22 percent to 11 [*PG1066]percent.171 One researcher summarized neatly the differences between American religiosity and that of most of the rest of the industrialized world by stating, “By just about every measure that survey researchers have conceived and employed, the United States appears markedly more religious than its peers in the family of nations, the other industrial democracies.”172

Not coincidentally, many of the statistics cited here that attempt to represent national religiosity came from The Challenge of Pluralism: Church and State in Five Democracies, by Stephen Monsma and J. Christopher Soper.173 The book provides an insightful evaluation of church-state policy across fives industrialized countries: the United States, the Netherlands, Australia, Great Britain, and Germany.174 Yet, the statistics contained in this book seem to lend support to the separationist cause by reflecting the anemic status of religion in the accommodationist countries relative to the United States.175 Do we not risk a similar decline in religiosity by adapting the same neutrality principle that has characterized much of Europe for decades, even centuries? Might it be true that the dynamism and vitality of religion in America is attributable to the separation principle? Is it not true that Americans voluntarily support their religious institutions because government fails to do it for them? Monsma and Soper acknowledge this seeming contradiction in their conclusion and they explore the theories of Roger Finke, Rodney Stark, and Laurence Iannoccone that contend that an American climate of vigorous competition among religious groups inspires the uniquely American spritual vitality.176 However, Monsma and Soper determine that separation is not unique as a religiously invigorating form of church-state policy through its impacts on religious competition:

We see no reason to conclude, however, that a policy of strict church-state separation is the only one that would facilitate competition among the churches. Our proposal would not inhibit competition or make America more like its European counterparts in terms of religious vitality. Our policy calls for the elimination of any state-imposed monopoly—religious or [*PG1067]secular—that is discriminatory among ideological perspectives . . . .177

There can be no question, however, that an American church-state system that abandons separation in favor of any form of neutrality necessarily becomes more like European models by the mere fact that government would subsidize certain activities of the American churches.178 If government subsidization of religious activities can contribute to a loss of spiritual vitality in the same way that political conservatives perceive government subsidy often contributes to a loss of entrepreneurial vitality in the economy, then the conclusion of Monsma and Soper is doubtful.179 The more serious question is the matter of degree, for it is likely that the degree to which government programs influence American religious vitality will depend on their pervasiveness. Where is the logical point at which to cap the government subsidization of religion? Will only religious schools be subsidized under the new system of neutrality and by what legal means can government be so limited? What about religious missions and soup kitchens, homes for unwed mothers, drug abuse rehabilitation centers, care programs for the aged, and so on? By what means can the government or the churches themselves determine that it is proper to subsidize one of these services but not another? There certainly is no evidence in other areas of society that government itself can locate this optimal point of subsidization.


It is the futility of this unfolding and drastic alteration to the American ethos that is most disconcerting. This Article has demonstrated that the changes that advocates of neutrality—including the justices of the plurality in Mitchell v. Helms—wish to impose on society cannot achieve their stated goal: the “elimination” of discrimination against religious groups. At best, neutrality will reorder discrimination such that those religious groups that are more willing to accept government aid will be subsidized to a greater degree than those groups that are less willing to accept aid. As churches become more dependent on government favor, they work their way up into the hierarchy of government favoritism. This “incentivizing” not only of dependency [*PG1068]but of conformity to a standard that, in Justice Thomas’s words, “adequately furthers the government’s secular purpose” only can be harmful to American religious vitality. Religion with its hand out can never speak with a prophetic voice. It will acquiesce to government requirements in order to insure its continued funding, and it will become more technical in its terminology and more secular in its ideology in order to compete with the other organizations with which it is “classed” by government as providing equivalent social services. Religious groups with strict prohibitions against institutional cooperation with government will find themselves at an increasing financial disadvantage relative to other faith groups as neutrality-based programs expand.

Equally disconcerting is the fact that the Court’s approval of neutrality-based government-aid-to-religion programs is wholly unnecessary. Current law enables religious organizations to receive government funds for the operation of certain social programs, so long as those funds are not commingled with funds used to advance their religious messages. While there is an admitted sacrifice in religious entities not being able to deliver social services in the context of their religious motivations for doing so, this arrangement does allow religious groups to partner with government in administering social services. Programs administered under the formal neutrality now advanced by the Helms decision would see limitations on proselytization and religious advancement disappear, denying the religious liberty of American citizens whose receipt of benefits might be conditioned upon their willingness to first hear a religious message.

This author makes no pretense of understanding fully the dynamics that enables the church-state separation of American culture to contribute to a religious vitality far superior to the church-state accommodation of European countries, but the evidence is irrefutable. If we are willing to take a lesson from our European friends, we will know that government-aid-to-religion is a misnomer—a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Because the essence of religion deals with the sacred rather than the temporal aspects of humanity, it differs in kind rather than degree from other aspects of life which government supports. Recognition of this fact provided the architectural wisdom that contributed to the subtle but ingenious wording of the First Amendment. Members of the Supreme Court now wish to use a sledgehammer to reshape that subtle and delicate instrument. And, there is fear that once that instrument has been reshaped, the sledgehammer will be the only tool capable of molding it again to whatever coercive purpose that government or even the people desire. If the United States [*PG1069]adopts a system of neutrality in church-state relations, it will be most difficult to return to genuine church-state separation even if it is recognized that neutrality has been harmful to the country’s religious vivacity. Current political difficulties in attempting to lessen the size of the welfare state testify to this postulate.

Have Americans become so fearful of our ideological diversity and the country’s perceived moral decline that we are willing to place at risk our religious vitality, perhaps the most distinctive feature of American society? Our inability to come to agreement on the importance of our founding principle of church-state separation to the nation’s identity and ethos is conditioned by William Lee Miller’s observation that “religious liberty was more central to the nation’s original moral self-definition than is comprehended . . . .”180 The farther we drift in time from our nation’s origin, the greater our disposition to tweak the system, to attempt to reshape our national ethos using the coercive power of government. Our nation has looked in the mirror and, disgusted, has determined that changes must take place. But what changes? Do we commit to a facelift or to a program of vigorous exercise? How do we exorcize the demons that supposedly inhabit our national soul without damaging the very spirit of the nation itself? Are we willing to settle for official programs designed to promote a civic religiosity at the likely expense of spiritual vitality? For the political conservative who laments the damage done to the spirit of the nation’s underclass by government-aid programs for the poor, such questions as these should not seem hyperbolic.

It is offered here that our nation has misdiagnosed the cause of its malaise. We have determined that the constitutional denial of the “right” to have government-sponsored generic prayers bellowed out over faulty PA systems at high-school football games has produced a generation of hedonists who have no place for God in their lives. And a similar constitutional denial of government aid to religious schools only intensifies that belief. In the midst of all this “denial,” Americans are afraid to confront the possibility that our affluence may contribute to our loss of spiritual vitality and, by consequence, to society’s moral decay. American Christian protests over not having the Ten Commandments posted on the walls of every schoolhouse cushions the guilt of parents who acquiesce to the increasing material desires of their children and fear the ultimate effects that such acquiescence may have on them. Is it possible that we seek relief from that guilt [*PG1070]through attempts to have government make us once again a religious people, initially to begin in our schools but inevitably to encompass many areas of our society? However, if we sacrifice our nation’s authentic spirituality for a government-sponsored civic faith, we minimize hopes for future Great Awakenings that might initiate spiritual renewals capable of reforming our increasingly materialistic culture. Church-state separation has one quality that neutrality or other forms of accommodation can never eclipse: it denies Americans a cushy, feel-good religiosity that conforms to the larger norms and values of society. Separation demands that we as individuals live our faiths often over and against the culture and it denies the right of government to attempt to live our faiths for us. The tradition of church-state separation is the one true purely American virtue. If we change it, we change the American ethos and risk jettisoning the core principle that has made America one of history’s greatest achievements.

?? ??