Supreme Court rules churches eligible for public funds; how justices voted

Alvin Kelly
June 27, 2017

Today's victory extends way beyond the right of a Lutheran church in Missouri to receive public funding for a playground.

"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 ... and can not stand", wrote Chief Justice John Roberts, who authored the majority opinion. On Monday, the court ruled that Missouri's decision to bar churches from the state's scrap tire program violated the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause.

The policy was based on a provision of the Missouri constitution that prohibits public money from going to religious institutions.

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor defends church state separation, calls ruling allowing church to use taxpayer funds "a radical mistake".

The case was seen as momentous for questions of separation of church and state, but in his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts downplayed its importance, stressing that the case was ultimately about the need to make sure kids are free to play safely on their playgrounds.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in her dissent, "If this separation means anything, it means that the government can not, or at the very least need not, tax its citizens and turn that money over to houses of worship".

'This case is about nothing less than the relationship between religious institutions and the civil government - that is between church and state.

The Orthodox Jewish group Agudath Israel of America said the ruling could provide support for the argument that it would be discriminatory to not allow publicly funded tuition vouchers to be used for schooling at a religious institution.

Instead, Trinity Lutheran was being denied public funding because of what it is: a house of worship.

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Gorsuch's impact might also have been in play in a case the court made a decision to take up for next term. But in a carefully worded footnote, Roberts said the ruling was limited and did not address "religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination". (Word&Way/Brian Kaylor) Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, hailed the ruling as "a triumph for religious freedom".

"This ruling reaffirms that the government can not discriminate against individuals or organizations simply because they or their members hold religious beliefs", Spicer added.

He argued that while the Constitution prevents the government from discriminating against religion, "it does not guarantee churches opportunities for public financing".

Although the state highly ranked Trinity Lutheran Child Learning Center as qualified for the program (fifth out of 44 nonprofit applicants), it denied the center's application exclusively because a church runs the preschool. However, because the state constitution explicitly bans state funding of churches, Trinity Lutheran was ineligible to apply.

The justices ultimately agreed that Trinity Lutheran was discriminated against due to their identity as a church.

The Court ruled 7-2 the policy is unconstitutional.

The court's opinion noted that the school was not claiming "any entitlement to a subsidy" but was asserting its "right to participate in a government benefit program without having to disavow its religious character".

Trinity, which runs a preschool, was denied a state grant to participate in the program - and lawyers for Trinity argued the state discriminated against the school based on religion.

"One of the biggest themes of Justice Gorsuch's confirmation process was his commitment to an especially strong view of how the Constitution protects religious liberty", said Steve Vladeck, CNN Supreme Court analyst and professor of law at the University of Texas School of Law.

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