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Supreme Court Upholds the Right of Churches to Steal

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On Monday the U.S. Supreme Court held that churches have the right to steal from people to get the money to fund their activities. No, the Court didn’t use the word “stealing” but that is the import of its ruling in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, a case in which the Court held that states cannot discriminate against churches in the granting of government funds.

Since all of us living today have been raised in what is called a welfare state, we have become accustomed to people using the political process to take money from some people in order to give it to other people. The tax-and-redistribute process has become such an established part of American life that few Americans ever think about the moral implications of what is happening.

The Trinity Lutheran Church decision provides a perfect demonstration of the corruption of morality and conscience that has accompanied the welfare state.

The church wanted to use recycled tires to surface a church playground. Ordinarily, when a church wishes to undertake a project, it initiates a fundraising drive. What Trinity Lutheran Church did in this case is go to the government and ask for a grant to do its playground project.

Let’s assume that the project was going to cost $10,000 and that the church had decided to fund the project through a fundraising drive. At the end of the fundraising drive, the most the the church has been able to raise is $5,000. The church beseeches people with how important the project is, but people steadfastly refuse to donate another dime for the project.

What then? Suppose church officials were to say: “This project is just too important. People have the money to fund it. They just don’t realize how important it is. Grab some guns. We are going to do some home visits.”

Church officials go to the homes of church members, enter, and hold a gun to their heads, telling them how important the playground project is and demand that they donate more money for the project. Under threat of force, people comply and hand over their “donations.”

Within a couple of days, church officials have raised the necessary funds. The playground is resurfaced, and church officials thank all the “donors” for their generous support.

My hunch is that if this scenario were presented to Trinity Lutheran Church, its officials would be able to immediately recognize what was wrong with it. They would undoubtedly say: “Jacob, what you have just described is stealing, an action that is barred by God’s Ten Commandments. We would never knowingly and willingly violate that commandment, no matter how important our playground project is. If people don’t want to donate to the project, that is their right. We have no moral or legal authority to force them to do so or to forcibly take their money from them.”

The problem arises with the welfare state. It has so corrupted people’s sense of morality and conscience that they are now blinded to the fact that they are guilty of the same sin when they use the force of the state to accomplish the same end.

Instead of going house to house to force people to fund its playground, Trinity Lutheran approaches government officials and, in essence, asks them to forcibly take money from people through taxation and then give the money to the church.

It’s important, after all, to keep in mind that taxation is not voluntary. It is founded on force. The state compels people to pay their taxes. If they don’t, the state levies and forecloses on liens on their property or garnishes their bank accounts. If they resist, the state will meet force with force. If someone resists the foreclosure of a state lien with deadly force, the state will use deadly force to put him down.

Notice that the result is the same: Either way, Trinity gets its playground money through coercion, in one case through private stealing and the other through legalized stealing.

Church officials might respond: “But Jacob, taxation is necessary to support the functions of government. Therefore, there is nothing wrong with what we have done.”

Even if taxation is necessary to fund the police and the courts, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s justified as a way to take money from Peter in order to give it to Paul. In other words, one might argue that people need to be forced to fund the police and the courts, but it doesn’t follow from that principle that using the taxing power to take money from one private person in order to give it to another private person is morally legitimate.

The 19th-century free-market writer Frederic Bastiat put it well in his excellent essay The Law, which is available for free on the Internet:

Sometimes the law places the whole apparatus of judges, police, prisons, and gendarmes at the service of the plunderers, and treats the victim — when he defends himself — as a criminal. In short, there is a legal plunder…. But how is this legal plunder to be identified? Quite simply. See if the law takes from some persons what belongs to them, and gives it to other persons to whom it does not belong. See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime.

Then abolish this law without delay, for it is not only an evil itself, but also it is a fertile source for further evils because it invites reprisals. If such a law — which may be an isolated case — is not abolished immediately, it will spread, multiply, and develop into a system.

Bastiat, of course, has been proven correct. The system he describes is called the welfare state, a massive tax-and-redistribute system in the state uses its power of taxation to take money from people to whom it belongs in order to give it to people to whom it does not belong. From a moral standpoint, that’s stealing, notwithstanding the fact that the Supreme Court has upheld the right of people to engage in it.

This post was written by:

Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.