03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Spirit of the Illinois Constitution

The Chicago Tribune recently reported that the $31 billion statewide construction program approved last spring by the Illinois General Assembly includes more than 100 grants -- in the form of earmarks designated by particular state legislators -- that are extended directly to religious organizations. One such earmark highlighted in the news story is more than a half million dollars that goes directly for the construction of a college prep school on Chicago's West Side.

The sponsor of the funding for the school suggests to the newspaper that the funding is not going for religious purposes, but instead is being used for "specific, nonreligious" areas of the new school building, including a gymnasium, computer labs, the library and the cafeteria. Is it really possible that a school whose mission is based on teaching a specific set of religious values can distinguish which parts of the building are religious and which are not? Aren't parents being encouraged to send their children to this private, religious institution -- a right that every parent is free to exercise under our system of public and private schools -- because the school imparts critical religious values to their students? The school's own website makes clear that these religious values are at the core of the curriculum and the entire approach to education.

Why, then, are school officials suggesting to the Tribune that parts of the building -- the library, for example -- will be "nonreligious?" The answer is clear. The religious institutions engage in these rhetorical contortions in order to justify receiving the state funds.

Illinois' state constitution is even more explicit than the U.S. Constitution when it comes to barring public funding for religious purposes. In fact, the Illinois Constitution says in particular that:

Neither the General Assembly nor any County, city, town, township, school district, or other public corporation, shall ever make any appropriation or pay from any public fund whatever, anything in aid of any church or sectarian purpose, or to help support or sustain any school, academy, seminary, college, university, or other literary or scientific institution, controlled by any church or sectarian denomination whatever; nor shall any grant or donation of land, money, or other personal property ever be made by the State, or any such public corporation, to any church, or for any sectarian purpose.

It is incredulous to suggest that the common areas of a religious school are not part of that institution's religious mission. It has to be. Students are not permitted to "check their religiosity" at the door of the cafeteria, the gym or the library. Such a policy would undermine the very meaning and purpose of the religious institution and do damage to the mission which they serve through the very existence of the school.

To be fair, as indicated above, this school is not the only institution in question. As the Tribune reports, other local religious institutions are set to receive grants from the state for construction projects -- like upgrading the façade and installing energy efficient windows -- and funds for capital improvements. While all of these institutions claim that none of the state funds are going directly to fund religious activities, it also is true that the addition of state funds clearly off-set any of the entities own funds -- that is, they have more funds for religious activities because the State of Illinois has helped pick up the tab for windows, sidewalks and other improvements that the church or religious entity wanted to undertake.

Because of the sensitive issues and constitutional permissibility raised by such funding, one would hope that the State of Illinois would have in place a very specific set of criteria to scrutinize such grants -- to ensure that no taxpayer funding is going to support religious activity of one denomination over another (the denomination that has the ear of the local lawmaker, in this case). When the ACLU of Illinois first saw reports of the massive amount of state funding going to religious institutions in the spring and summer of this year, we wrote to Governor Pat Quinn and asked him to ensure that appropriate safeguards were put in place to guard against taxpayer funding of religious institution's basic missions.

That is a matter of concern, both because of the vast amounts of money that are going to religious groups and because of the lack of transparency in the way that the money is doled out. These funds are not distributed through competitive bidding; these are not resources for specific social-service funding that any institution (including religious groups) can apply for. This is money that is designated for dispersal by a single individual -- a state legislator. It is not clear that all religious groups are made aware that such funds are available -- but those who have a relationship with the legislator (and perhaps the largest, most active, most vocal congregations) are awarded the money.

The Tribune story should send up a big, red flare in the governor's office. They should redouble their efforts to ensure that the principles of our state constitution are followed both in letter and in spirit.