Supreme Court rules for Missouri church in playground case

Ausiliatrice Cristiano
Giugno 27, 2017

In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court on June 26 said a Lutheran preschool should not be excluded from a state grant program to refurbish its playground surface just because it is a religious entity. "But the court went out of its way to clarify that today's decision addressed only grants for playground resurfacing".

The state's natural resources department ultimately ruled the church ineligible for the program because of its religious status because the Missouri Constitution forbids taxpayer funding of churches.

Despite the annotation, supporters of school choice saw the case as a victory that could possibly pave the way for vouchers to be used at religious schools. Such programs were not discussed during oral arguments or in any of the justices' opinions. The conservative Institute for Justice said 1.3 million students in school-choice programs could be affected. It said the exclusion violates the First Amendment's protection against policies prohibiting the free exercise of religion, as well as the 14th Amendment's promise of equal protection for all.

"We should all celebrate the fact that programs created to help students will no longer be discriminated against by the government based exclusively on religious affiliation", she said in a statement posted on the Department of Education's website.

Trinity was one of dozens of applications for funding in 2012 under a program that resurfaces playgrounds with rubber from scrap tires.

In the majority opinion, Chief Justice Roberts acknowledged that "it is true the department has not criminalized the way Trinity Lutheran worships or told the church that it can not subscribe to a certain view of the Gospel".

The Supreme Court wrapped its sessionMonday morning, but before the justices' summer recess, the Court made major announcements on three high-profile cases - two of which the Court will take up in the fall. Under current state law, Missouri argued that religious schools had no access to state funds for any goal, an argument demolished by both the controlling opinion and two others in support of it.

Trinity Lutheran went to court, claiming that the grant denial interfered with its free exercise of religion and unconstitutionally discriminated against the school based on religion. Public benefits come in many shapes and sizes.

This case involves the multifaceted First Amendment with its Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause.

The Court's decision also delivered a significant blow to usage of the Blaine Amendments against religious schools across the country, according to Maureen Ferguson, Senior Policy Advisor with The Catholic Association.

The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, says it "threatens to open the door to more taxpayer support for religion". In the playground resurfacing case, Roberts wrote: "There is no question that Trinity Lutheran was denied a grant simply because of what it is-a church". (Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, who in a concurring opinion argued that Locke was wrong and should be explicitly overruled, refused to join the footnote, denying it the status of a majority opinion.) But despite Roberts' false modesty, this decision is nearly certain to have implications well beyond playground improvements.

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

The ACLU, in a statement expressing disappointment with the decision, also focused on the limited nature of the decision.

"The church has a religious mission, one that it pursues through the learning center", she wrote. The Court agreed to hear the case shortly thereafter and has now ruled in favor of the church.

Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented in the case, considered by many court watchers to be the highest profile of the Supreme Court season, which runs from October through early summer.

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