Supreme Court rules for Missouri church in playground case

Children play on the playground at the Trinity Lutheran Child Learning Center in Columbia Mo

In a ruling that started with a question about shredded tires in Missouri, the U.S.

The Missouri recycling program was not available to all applicants. The state awarded 14 grants that year.

"The Department's policy expressly discriminates against otherwise eligible recipients by disqualifying them from a public benefit exclusively due to their religious character", Roberts said. The rule is simple: "No churches need apply".

Although Chief Justice John Roberts included a brief footnote presumably limiting the scope of the decision to playground resurfacing, this decision has the potential for rewriting Establishment Clause jurisprudence in the United States.

The justices ruled 7-2 that Missouri stretched the constitutional separation of church and state too far by declaring a Lutheran church ineligible to receive a competitive state grant for playground resurfacing. Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, like Roberts, joined except as to the footnote.

"Justice Stephen Breyer, in a concurring opinion, wrote that the state may not cut off a religious institution from "'a general program created to secure or to improve the health and safety of children' without running afoul of the Constitution".

"And the general principles", Justice Gorsuch wrote, "here do not permit discrimination against religious exercise - whether on the playground or anywhere else".


While the Court's ruling is straightforward, Michael Moreland, Professor of Law and Religion at Villanova University, said that the balance of opinion among the justices was notable, showing that the majority supports a broad interpretation of religious liberty. "But the suggestion that these changes will somehow obliterate the "wall of separation" ignores the many ways in which government funding already benefits religious institutions through tax benefits, grants, partnerships, even police and fire services", he said. Gorsuch goes onto write that he can not "see why the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause should care". But the state said that was not allowed.

"Whether you are a Jewish, Muslim or Christian kid, or not religious at all, when you fall down on a playground, it hurts just as much at a religious preschool as it does at a non-religious one". Playgrounds, he argued, were a different matter.

But voucher opponents say there's an enormous difference between allowing public money to go to a church for secular purposes, as the court ruled Monday, and allowing public money to go to a church for religious purposes, which would fly in the face of decades of legal precedent.

"This decision is significant because seven of the justices agreed that churches can't be treated as second-class citizens when it comes to widely available public safety benefits", said Smith. "As the Supreme Court rightly found, unequal treatment that singles out a preschool for exclusion from such a program simply because a church runs the school is clearly unconstitutional". The decision could have implications for more than 30 states that block public funds from going to religious organizations.

It's easy to be horrified with the Court's decision today in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer. Sotomayor wrote a powerful dissent which again makes clear that her nomination was one of the best decisions Barack Obama made as president. "We do not address religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination".

For Trinity Lutheran, the bigger issue was the school's constitutional right to the free exercise of religion, which was a key point in oral arguments presented to the court in April. It lost at the federal district and appellate court levels, but the Supreme Court's decision in January 2016 to hear the case was seen as a positive sign.

As Vox's Dara Lind notes, by the time the Court hears the case against the travel ban when sessions resume in October, "the 90-day ban will likely have been completed - potentially replaced by a longer, indefinite ban on entries from countries that don't provide enough information to the U.S.".

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