Monday, April 23, 2007

MO Supreme Court Upholds Financial Help to Religious College

In an opinion dated March 17, the Missouri Supreme Court held that the City of St. Louis did not violate the state constitution's "Blaine Amendment" when it provided a form of financial assistance to Saint Louis University. The case is Saint Louis University v. Masonic Temple Association.

Article IX, Section 8 of the Missouri Constitution forbids state and local government from financially supporting schools "controlled by any religious creed, church or sectarian denomination whatever." The Missouri Supreme Court assumed that the complicated financing scheme in question (something called "tax increment financing") amounted to the sort of aid that implicated the Missouri Constitution, and proceeded to contemplate whether SLU was "controlled" by a creed, church, or denomination.

The court found that it was not, essentially reasoning that SLU was not really all that religious. Trustees and faculty need not be Jesuits, Roman Catholics, Christians, or even theists. The religious faith of an applicant for admission is apparently irrelevant. In the court's words, "religious doctrine" is not the foundation for "core decision-making" by the university does not attempt to "indoctrinate the faith." Aspirational references to its Jesuit origins and connections in its by-laws and other documents were not enough to put SLU on the wrong side of the line.

Although the court reached the right result, certain aspects of its language and reasoning are troubling. The opinion suggests that when religious commitments play a stronger role in a university's life, it inevitably engages in "indoctrination" rather than "education." There are many excellent institutions of higher education that are far more faith-infused than SLU (Wheaton, Gordon, Messiah, Taylor, Dordt, Azusa Pacific, Calvin, Biola, etc.); yet it is nothing short of slander to suggest that what they do is "indoctrinate" students.

Allowing such schools to participate in government financial assistance programs does not undermine church-state separation, properly understood. Unfortunately, too many opponents of theologically conservative religion use church-state law to punish and marginalize it. In their view, the government may bestow benefits upon the "secular" and the merely "religiously affiliated," but not the more seriously religious. Each of these represents and reflects a worldview (the functional equivalent of a religion), and there is no neutral standpoint from which one can credibly dismiss seriously religious institutions as unworthy of equal participation.