The question of whether public appropriations to religious groups in order for those groups to perform public functions is a complex one. There is a strong argument to be made that it’s simply wrong and unconstitutional for public dollars to flow to sectarian institutions for any purpose given the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
As the Constitution has come to be interpreted in recent decades by a conservative Supreme Court, however, the First Amendment does not serve as a complete bar to appropriations to religious groups to serve public purposes so long as the public money is not directed toward “religious uses.”
Even that arguably inadequate standard appears, however, to have been breached in the state budget bill unveiled this week by Republican leaders in the General Assembly. Among many worrisome appropriations in the bill is a direct $250,000 earmark for a private group known as Cross Trail Outfitters of North Carolina, which describes itself as a youth hunting and fishing club. The appropriation (see page 72-73 0f the bill) specifies that the money is to be used for “promoting wellness and physical activity for youth seven to 20 years of age.”
Here is how Cross Trail Outfitters describes its mission in the first sentence that appears on the group’s website:
“There’s a life out in God’s creation, and Cross Trail Outfitters (CTO) is all about ‘Guiding the next generation to Christ through the outdoors.’”
Several other statements about the group’s explicitly religious mission can be found by clicking here.
There appears to be no doubt that the group really is about taking young boys outside and that’s all well and good (assuming one supports the idea of dressing pre-adolescents up in military fatigues and giving them weapons to kill animals). But there also appears to be no doubt that there is a very explicit proselytizing component to this work. Simply put, the overarching mission of this group is clearly to evangelize for a specific religion and now North Carolina taxpayers will be funding that mission directly. There is no indication at all that the group does any kind of youth work that does not involve promoting Christianity.
The General Assembly’ proposed appropriation is, therefore, by all appearances, indistinguishable from a direct appropriation to a church for, say, its youth ministry program.
The bottom line: If this doesn’t violate the First Amendment’s wall between church and state, it’s hard to say that anything would. If this provision becomes law, let’s hope the courts weigh in on it in the very near future.