Church Taxes and the Original Understanding of the Establishment Clause

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Since the Supreme Court’s decision in Everson v. Board of Education, it has been widely assumed that the Establishment Clause forbids government from ‘aiding’ or subsidizing religious activity, especially religious schools. This Article suggests that this reading of the Establishment Clause rests on a misunderstanding of Founding-era history, especially the history surrounding church taxes. Contrary to popular belief, the decisive argument against those taxes was not an unqualified assertion that subsidizing religion was prohibited. Rather, the crucial argument was that church taxes were a coerced religious observance: a government-mandated sacrifice to God, a tithe. Understanding that argument helps to explain a striking fact about the Founding era that the no-aid theory has largely ignored—the pervasive funding of religious schools by both the federal government and the recently disestablished states. But it also has important implications for modern law. Most significantly, it suggests that where a funding program serves a public good and does not treat the religious aspect of a beneficiary’s conduct as a basis for funding, it is not an establishment of religion.

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