The Supreme Court rules that a playground isn't a pulpit

Alvin Kelly
June 27, 2017

The Court ruled 7-2 the policy is unconstitutional. Public school advocates meanwhile were somewhat relieved.

The court held that churches could not be excluded from a state grant program for playground surfaces that was open to other charitable organizations.

The outcome may be only "a few extra scraped knees", said Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., but denying the grant reflects an unconstitutional discrimination based on religion, he said.

The BJC, an 80-year-old organization representing 15 Baptist bodies, previously filed an official brief with the Supreme Court urging the justices to uphold Missouri's position.

In a footnote without legal standing, the opinion tried to limit the ruling to programs like playground safety. In a separate opinion, Gorsuch, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, clarified that the case should be applied broadly throughout the country to make it clear discrimination against religious practice isn't tolerated on the playground or anywhere else. Strictly interpreted, it might prevent taxpayers from providing fire or police protection for houses of worship.

Although only two justices - Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg - dissented from the ruling, the other seven judges disagreed with each other, thus creating no full majority opinion. The decision could lead to an America "where separation of church and state is a constitutional slogan, not a constitutional commitment", they wrote. Trinity Lutheran's application was rejected exclusively because it is a church, and the state constitution (like many other states) includes a "Blaine Amendment" that prohibits even indirect aid to churches.

Lori of Baltimore, chairman of the US bishops' Committee for Religious Liberty, said the decision was a "landmark victory for religious freedom".

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TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: The First Amendment says the government can't pass any law establishing religion.

Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU's Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, called the decision disappointing but limited.

"It doesn't completely eliminate them, but it says that states can not interpret their amendments in such a way that they would be discriminating against a church run institution or religious organization", added Byrnes, who is lead staff for the bishops' Committee for Religious Liberty. In a freaky footnote that likely highlights brewing philosophical fights behind the scenes, the court even went out of its way to say the case was just about "playground resurfacing".

The court's order does allow travelers with a credible claim of a relationship to a person in the U.S.to come into the country. The parents of a 15-year-old Mexican boy sued a US border patrol agent who shot and killed the teenager when he was standing a few feet from the border on the Mexican side.

The Supreme Court reversed the decision, calling it "odious to our Constitution". The case, which is anything but neutral, will be argued in the fall.

The court also said it will rehear the case of Sessions vs. Dimaya to decide whether noncitizens can be deported for an offense such as breaking into an empty home because it may be deemed a "crime of violence". The court's action suggests the eight justices were evenly split in Jennings vs. Rodriguez.

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