In the Missouri case, which dates to 2012, the church applied for funding to replace the pea-gravel surface of its child learning center's playground with material made from recycled tires. According to Missouri’s Blaine amendment there is a provision in the state constitution that bans public funding of religious organizations, including schools. Similar provisions exist in nearly 40 state constitutions and have been the basis for overturning private school choice programs.
The Supreme Court ruled -2 on Monday (June 26) that if the government makes a grant available to the public and a church qualifies for it, it can’t be ruled out simply because it’s religious. The state wrongly denied the church “an otherwise available public benefit on account of its religious status,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion. Roberts said in his opinion that excluding this church from receiving the grant to upgrade a playground was “odious” to our nation’s principles:
“The State in this case expressly requires Trinity Lutheran to renounce its religious character in order to participate in an otherwise generally available public benefit program, for which it is fully qualified… the exclusion of Trinity Lutheran from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, solely because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution all the same, and cannot stand.”
Five of the justices who ruled in favor of Trinity Lutheran — Roberts, Kennedy, Alito, Kagan, and Breyer — believe this case is just about playgrounds (and similar grants). It’s Thomas and Gorsuch who want a broader decision. Two justices, Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented in the case. “To hear the Court tell it, this is a simple case about recycling tires to resurface a playground. The stakes are higher. This case is about nothing less than the relationship between religious institutions and the civil government — that is, between church and state,” Sotomayor wrote. She made a great point because when you renovate a playground on church property, you are helping that church. When you give taxpayer money to the church, you are obviously helping that church no matter what the money will be used for.
Christian “religious liberty” groups are celebrating this decision. Alliance Defending Freedom called this a “huge religious freedom victory.” … Equal treatment of a religious organization in a program that provides only secular benefits, like a partial reimbursement grant for playground surfacing, isn’t a government endorsement of religion. After this ruling, the high court said two other decisions from lower courts, both barring churches from public education funding, should be reconsidered.
On the other hand, groups who advocate state/church separation condemned the ruling. The Freedom From Religion Foundation said today’s ruling could “inflict incalculable damage” on church/state separation: “It has been a bright line rule since America’s founding that the government will not fund religion or the free exercise of religion. Today, the Supreme Court destroyed that rule, claiming that a government funding program that is not open to churches ‘violates the Free Exercise Clause.’”
Photo Credits: Los Angeles Times