Wednesday, February 25, 2004

We Won't Punish You, We'll Just Reward Everyone Else

The blogosphere is awash with discussion of the Supreme Court’s Davey decision, which essentially said the state can create a blanket education subsidy that specifically excludes religious education. I won’t rehash all the arguments – instead, I’ll link to both Amy and Eugene, both of whom get it exactly right. So does Justice Scalia’s dissent: “No field of study but religion is singled out for disfavor in this fashion.”

I will make one argument that I haven’t (yet) seen on anyone’s blog. This decision validates the notion that the state can draw a line between religion and non-religion, thus allowing it to fund the latter while denying funds to the former. The problem is that no such line exists. There is no unambiguous way to distinguish spiritual from secular ethical belief systems. Where, for instance, does Scientology lie on the spectrum from religion to non-religion? Originally, the Scientologists did not call their organization a “church”; they changed their tune when they realized they could get the benefits of First Amendment protection plus tax exemptions by going the full-on religion route. But there is nothing in the Scientologists’ belief system (so far as I know) that implies the existence of a deity or even a supernatural realm. Although the Scientologists chose to go in the secular-to-religious direction, it would certainly be possible for other groups to go the opposite direction in light of the Davey decision and policies like those of Washington state. Even if very few groups alter their creeds at the margin to exploit the state’s definition of religion, there will exist groups that sit near the arbitrary borderline, and these groups will be treated differently for essentially arbitrary reasons. Rather than put the state in the position of deciding what's religion and what's not, I would have the state adopt a neutral stance that requires no definition of religion.

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