Trinity Lutheran: The Supreme Kibosh on Religious Discrimination

Religious freedom regularly gets its nose bloodied in the U.S. Courts of Appeals these days, but there is great news.  The majority of the Justices on the U.S. Supreme Court continue their historic and heroic role of rescuing religious liberty!  The latest rescue came on June 26, 2017 with the 7-2 decision in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer.

Not that you would know this, if you have been listening to the howling of the radical church state separationists employed by the Adventist Church, their politically liberal allies outside, or the two Supreme Court Justices who dissented.  That is right, only two of the Justices dissented. Half of the liberal wing of the Supreme Court supported the outcome in Trinity Lutheran.  Think about this for just a moment.  The howlers inside and outside the Church are aligned with the most liberal faction of the Supreme Court.

Instead of merely considering the company kept by the howlers, let’s consider constitutional law, religious teaching, and common sense.  Then you decide whether the outcry is justified. 

My wife spent decades teaching students in the Adventist elementary school system.  At one of her schools, the county declined a request that it erect the typical motorist “school zone” warning signs found near local public schools.  Because it was a religious school, the country refused to alert drivers that they were approaching a school.  The lives of these young children were placed in danger in order to “protect church state separation.”

The foolishness of this decision should make your head spin.  The purpose of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is to protect the church from being dominated by the state and the state from being dominated by the church.  In Europe, the founders of our country experienced the problems that arise when the state establishes a specific church and requires the citizens to support it. To protect against those problems, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitutional prohibits both the “establishment” of religion and the passage of laws which prohibit the “free exercise” of religion. In sum, the state can neither establish nor oppose the church.  The short hand term for this is “church-state separation.”

Apply that constitutional principle to the students placed at increased danger by the county’s misguided decision about signs.  The parents of these children paid a substantial amount in taxes to support the local public schools.  (Often 50% or more of local property taxes goes to fund the public schools.)  Then, these parents paid a second time to have their children educated in Adventist schools - at no cost to the state. The expense of placing caution signs near religious schools would be a minute fraction of the money saved by the public schools because these private schools existed.

The question then is this: when the local government refuses to protect children going to religious schools, is it protecting the church from being dominated by the state, or is it just being hostile to religion?  Common sense tells you that posting safety signs at religiously affiliated schools poses no threat to the separation of church and state.  The government should provide police and fire protection to church schools, and it should let church school children ride on public school buses.  To refuse to provide these neutral and generally available governmental services, just like refusing to post the school warning signs for motorists, is just plain discrimination against religion.  You simply don’t endanger the lives of any children, much less whose parents are paying twice for their kids’ education.  If you agree, then you would vote with the majority of the Justices in Trinity Lutheran – you do not qualify as a howler.

Trinity Lutheran posed a similar neutral services/student safety problem.  Perhaps you recall the days when discarded tires created a serious trash problem?  You could bury your old tires halfway in the ground along the sides of your driveway, or you could do what the State of Missouri did: create a recycling program for discarded tires.  Old tires were processed to become a rubber surface for playgrounds.

Under Missouri law, nonprofit organizations with a playground could apply to participate in the Missouri recycling program. Trinity Lutheran applied for a grant to cover the gravel surface of its playground with a recycled rubber surface.  Although it scored fifth among forty-four applicants in the recycling program, Trinity Lutheran was denied for one reason: it was a religious school and the Missouri Constitution prohibited the state from aiding religion.  Just like the denied safety signs for my wife’s school, these children would fall on gravel instead of rubber because they were receiving a religious education.

What do you say?  If a church school is allowed to participate in this religiously neutral recycling program, is the state establishing the church?  Or, would the church continue to operate on its own, but with a significantly safer playground?  Is the refusal to allow a church school to participate in this taxpayer funded recycling program simple hostility to religion?  The overwhelming majority of the Supreme Court held that Missouri’s prohibition violated the First Amendment right to freely exercise religious belief free from state sponsored hostility.

When I was much younger, almost all of the church-state extremists working for the Adventist Church were ministers.  I’ve been practicing constitutional law (primarily dealing with the First Amendment) for over forty years.  I used to grin when these ministers, who had no legal education, would argue that they had a more accurate understanding of the First Amendment than mine.  Although it is still true that many church employees in the Public Affairs and Religious Liberty (PARL) work are ministers, their ranks now include attorneys, some of whom are experts on the First Amendment.

Whether the PARL employees of the Adventist Church are ministers or lawyers, what causes them to be such virulent church-state separationists?  It must spring from our mutual concern about what Ellen White wrote regarding the future of religious liberty in the United States.  Thus, it is reasonable to expect that they would know what Ellen White counseled in situations like Trinity Lutheran.

Sadly, many PARL workers in the Adventist Church today make the same errors that they made in Ellen White’s time.  Her correction and counsel to Church employees then shows that the radical church-state separationists within the Church today continue to stand in opposition to her counsel.  Consider some of what she wrote about the Church taking money from the government:

The Lord still moves upon the hearts of kings and rulers in behalf of His people. Those who are laboring for Him are to avail themselves of the help that He prompts men to give for the advancement of His cause. The agents through whom these gifts come, may open ways by which the light of truth shall be given to many benighted lands. These men may have no sympathy with God's work, no faith in Christ, no acquaintance with His word; but their gifts are not on this account to be refused (Ellen White, Christian Service at 168 (1904)).

Notice that Ellen White is referring to gifts of the government.

The quote above is directly supported by her specific advice on accepting government aid for the Church.  Consider the following condensation of pages 221-22 of the book Messenger of the Lord by Herbert E. Douglass (Pacific Press 1998) and available in full text at this link:

In 1893, the British South Africa Company was offering large grants of land to churches to cultivate the land and educate the indigenous population.  One local Adventist leader approached the Premier of the Cape Colony and asked for land.  The Premier agreed, and a 12,000-acre parcel of land was given to the Church for Solusi College, the first Adventist educational institution among non-Christian people.  Religious liberty leaders of the day, including A.T. Jones, declared the transaction to be a blatant violation of the principle of separation of church and state and rushed into battle, often with injudicious words.

The issue came to a steamy head at the 1895 General Conference session.  Two religious liberty items were placed on the agenda: (1) the South Africa land grant and (2) tax exemption on church property.  The session voted to refuse tax exemption for American churches and to instruct South African leaders that the church must pay for any land provided.

When the news reached Ellen White, she wrote a fourteen-page letter in which she strongly protested those two General Conference actions. She wrote that denominational decisions must be based on “correct principles.”  She continued, “Let these men [Religious Liberty leaders] read the book of Nehemiah with humble hearts touched by the Holy Spirit, and their false ideas will be modified, and correct principles will be seen, and the present order of things will be changed.”

Although Ellen White strongly advocated the principle of religious liberty, she never used the phrase “separation of church and state.” She urged church leaders not to “build up a wall of separation between themselves and the world, by advancing their own ideas and notions.” She added this warning to radical church-state separationists, “[These] ideas of religious liberty are being woven with suggestions that do not come from the Holy Spirit, and the religious liberty cause is sickening.”

This condensation from the Douglass book shows that the radical church-state separationists in the PARL departments of the Adventist Church today have no legitimate religious basis for their position.  On the one hand, they claim to be protecting church members against the future limitations on religious liberty foretold by Ellen White.  At the same time, they completely ignore (or are ignorant of) the specific advice she gave about accepting government aid for our schools.

If it was “sickening” to oppose the acceptance of 12,000 acres of land for our College, then clearly, the opposition to Trinity Lutheran accepting a little recycled rubber for playground safety is revolting.  The howling that results from false ideas about church-state separation needs to stop.  “Correct principles” must be followed by those representing the Adventist Church.



Bruce N. Cameron is the Reed Larson Professor of Labor Law at Regent University School of law, and is on staff with the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation.  He is a member of the bar of the U.S. Supreme Court and has been litigating religious liberty and First Amendment cases for more than forty years.  He is the author of the popular series of Bible studies.