Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
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By Phill Brooks
«RM75»«FC»COL244.PRB - Church and State
This month, Missouri's governor took an action that could have a national impact on an issue with a long history involving separation of church and state.
The action is Eric Greitens' revocation of a Natural Resources Department rule that prohibited providing scrap-tire refuse for the playground of a Columbia Lutheran school.
It's national in scope because revoking that rule could have shutdown a U.S. Supreme Court case that challenges a provision contained in many state constitutions that ban government financial support of religion.
The background goes back to shortly after the Civil War when the authors of Missouri's Constitution strengthened the state's Bill of Rights against government support of religion.
The section, still in today's Constitution, provides "That no money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect or domination of religion, or not in aid of any priest, preacher, minister or teacher thereof..."
That language has not stopped a series of legislative efforts to find exemptions to provide financial support for parents with kids in parochial schools --- resulting in laws that have triggered numerous lawsuits.
A major decision came in a 1974 state Supreme Court decision, "Paster v. Tussey," which held that Missouri's ban on government support was violated by just loaning state-funded textbooks to students in private religious schools.
The decision was not a surprise. In 1942 the state Supreme Court used blunt language striking down a teaching partnership between a rural school district and a parochial school.
"The constitutional policy of our State has decreed the absolute separation of church and state, not only in governmental matters, but in the educational ones as well. Public money, coming from taxpayers of every denomination, may not be used for the help of any religious sect in education or otherwise," the court held in a unanimous decision.
Despite these decisions, legislative efforts and resulting lawsuits continued.
Can a child ride a public school bus to get to a parochial school? Can government fund special-needs services like speech therapy at parochial schools?
To both questions, the courts answered "no." But state-funded scholarships for students attending religious-owned higher education institutions have been upheld.
There's a national history behind this legal dispute.
Missouri was one of more than 30 states that adopted "Blaine amendments" against government funding for religion in the late 1800s.
The term referred to a U.S. constitutional amendment by U.S. Rep. James Baine for a tougher restriction against government support of religion.
While Blaine's federal effort failed, it led to state constitutional amendments across the country that now could be at issue before the U.S. Supreme Court from the Missouri case.
This case has a couple of ironies.
First, it was raised by a Protestant church.
For many of my decades covering Missouri's statehouse, it's been leaders of another Protestant religious organization, the Missouri Baptist Convention, who fought against government funding for religious schools.
That history of Protestant opposition should not be a surprise. During much of the history of the "Blaine amendments," the clear motivation was to block taxpayer support for Catholic schools.
The other irony is that Greitens' decision to revoke Missouri's rule on the basis of religious freedom may have an opposite effect.
It may have pulled the plug on a case in which the U.S. Supreme Court could have ruled whether throughout the country the "Blaine amendments" ban on funding for parochial schools violate the 14th Amendment for equal protection for all, regardless of religion.
But it will be up our country's highest court whether and how to decide this Missouri case.
I owe a deep thanks to my dear friend Mike Wolff for helping me understand this complex issue. Mike is a former Missouri Supreme Court chief justice and dean emeritus of St. Louis University Law School.
I'm also need to thank him for the many editing mistakes he caught in this column -- demonstrating the skills he developed as a Minneapolis StarTribune reporter while in law school.
[Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.]
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