Supreme Court rules for Missouri church in playground case

Supreme Court rules for Missouri church in playground case

Supreme Court: States Can't Exclude Churches From Grant Programs

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled a religious school can receive taxpayer funds for a playground.

"Trinity Lutheran was simply asking that the government play fair, treat churches equally, and help the preschool make its playground safer for children", Smith said.

At issue was a playground owned by Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Mo., and operated by the church's preschool. Despite Trinity Lutheran's strong ranking, its application was rejected by the Missouri DNR due to Missouri's "Blaine Amendment", which prohibits State funds from being allocated "directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect, or denomination of religion".

Comer, a seven-person majority held that the state of Missouri could not single out faith-based organizations for exclusion from grants that would have paid for property maintenance.

Michael Bindas, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice, says the principle of "religious neutrality" applies "whether the government is enabling schools to resurface their playgrounds or empowering parents to direct their children's education". In Missouri and more than 30 other states, the constitutional law is similar.

Lots of news coming out of the U.S. Supreme Court this week.

In a footnote, Sotomayor wrote a prediction that all of her fellow justices may actually agree with: This ruling will spark more cases in the future with bigger church-state implications at stake. Roberts wrote, "The result of the State's policy is nothing so dramatic as the denial of political office but the exclusion of Trinity Lutheran from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, exclusively because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution all the same, and can not stand".

The government can not impose such as penalty on the free exercise of religion, the opinion stated, unless doing so serves a state interest of the highest order.

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Lawyers for the church school argued that the grant program was open to all not-for-profit schools, except religious ones.

"Religious freedom is central to the origin and identity of this country", Hatch said.

The state of Missouri failed to meet that standard. Dismissing this view, Chief Justice Roberts wrote that the state proffers "nothing more than Missouri's policy preference for skating as far as possible from religious establishment concerns" as justification for denying the Lutheran tykes a cushier playground. Thomas states, in part: "This Court's endorsement in Locke of even a mild kind of discrimination against religion remains troubling".

"The Supreme Court has detonated a massive breach in the wall of separation between church and state", said Nicholas Little, the center's legal director. "I do not, however, join footnote 3". Justice Neil Gorsuch added a brief dissent to that opinion which addressed the problem of distinguishing between "religious status and religious use". Pointing to several precedents, Chief Justice Roberts noted that "denying a generally available benefit exclusively on account of religious identity imposes a penalty on the free exercise of religion that can be justified only by a state interest 'of the highest order.'" Why did the state deny the grant to Trinity Lutheran? He sees no significant difference between that and the "general program created to secure or to improve the health and safety of children" now before the Court.

Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer dissented. As Gorsuch pointed out, there is always the question of how public funds would be used by any specific religious entity.

Trinity Lutheran sued the state, claiming that the only reason it was being denied funding was because it was a religious institution.

The amendment "should not act as a bar to a religious organization receiving a nonsectarian grant, like the offered through the scrap tire program, that do nothing to establish a religion", he said.

The First Amendment does not forbid all interaction between church and state.

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