SCOTUS sides with Missouri church, but qualifying purposes still in question


The Columbia, Missouri, church had sought the grant under a state program that reimburses nonprofit organizations that install playground surfaces made from recycled tires.

Carl Esbeck, University of Missouri professor of law emeritus, says the Supreme Court's ruling in the Trinity Lutheran Church case changes the narrative in the debate over state funds going towards religious schools.

In the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts said, 'In this case, there is no dispute that Trinity Lutheran is put to the choice between being a church and receiving a government benefit. Justice Stephen Breyer wrote separately to emphasize "the peculiar benefit nature of the public benefit here", and he noted pointedly that the court has previously ruled that " "cutting off church schools from" such "general government services as ordinary police and fire obviously not the objective of the First Amendment" " ban on state establishment of religion.

Komer also pointed out that Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch didn't join in the footnote, despite concurring with the majority opinion.

"This case is about nothing less than the relationship between religious institutions and the civil government that is, between church and state", she wrote, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

On Tuesday, the justices tossed out lower-court rulings in New Mexico and Colorado regarding the use of public money for religious institutions and asked state supreme courts for reconsideration. Since the church would have otherwise qualified, the state's decision was held to violate the U.S. Constitution's prohibition on interference with the free exercise of religion.

Justice Sonya Sotomayor took the rare step of reading her dissent from the bench, saying the ruling weakens America's longstanding commitment to separation of church and state. In the preschool case, the playground grant was not related to religion.

The justices on Monday ruled 7-2 in favor of Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Missouri.

The case was in regards to the state of Missouri and the Trinity Lutheran church.

Blaine proposed a federal constitutional amendment that stated in part that "no money raised by taxation in any State for the support of public schools, or derived from any public fund therefor, nor any public lands devoted thereto, shall ever be under the control of any religious sect".

The potential for broadening what Roberts hoped would be a narrow decision is precisely what Sotomayor and Ginsburg were anxious about.

In an amicus brief, the United States bishops' conference warned that if the decision against the church had stood, it "would invite state officials to invoke those concerns as a pretext for penalizing religious groups whose beliefs or practices diverge from government-prescribed orthodoxy". "Today's decision means discrimination of this kind will never be permitted again in the state of Missouri, or anywhere". Republican President Donald Trump's education secretary, Betsy DeVos, is a prominent supporter of such "school choice" plans.

Regardless of the religious freedom implications of this ruling these children who participated in demonstrations on behalf of Trinity Lutheran will likely be pleased by the decision.