Supreme Court allows use of public funds for religious school playground


"T$3 he 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", Roberts wrote for the court.

"In a surprisingly strong 7-2 ruling, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), clearly set out that a church does not have to give up its nature as a religious institution to participate in public programs even if a public program is government-funded".

Law360, Washington (June 26, 2017, 10:17 AM EDT) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled that Missouri violated the Constitution by excluding religious groups from a state grant program for playground resurfacing, siding with a church that was denied funds through the program in what could become a landmark ruling on church-state separation. It placed fifth among 44 applicants, 14 of which were awarded grants, but the church was passed over based on a provision in the state constitution.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer called the ruling a "significant victory for religious liberty and an affirmation of the First Amendment rights of all Americans". It applied despite written regulations that barred state grants to religious institutions.

Religious freedom advocates applauded the ruling.

And Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who dissented, are far from convinced that the majority's footnote does enough to stop those broader applications. "Although Footnote 3 is mysterious, it seems to me that the reasoning in this case should mean that, for example, excluding an otherwise eligible religious school from a school-choice, voucher, scholarship or tax-credit program would be hard to justify", Garnett said.

The statement added: "Although the decision is narrowly focused, the US Supreme Court appears to have taken a disturbing step back from this commitment today". The district court rejected Trinity Lutheran's claims, ruling that to do otherwise would raise "antiestablishment concerns".

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a staunch supporter of private school choice options, praised the decision. "I am particularly pleased with the precise and originalist approach of Justice Gorsuch, whose concurring opinion states that the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause does not allow for distinctions between religious status and religious use".

"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.

"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.

"The Supreme Court's decision today affirms the commonsense principle that government isn't being neutral when it treats religious organizations worse than everyone else", said ADF Senior Counsel David Cortman, who argued before the Supreme Court on behalf of Trinity Lutheran Church in April.

Lawyers for the church school argued that the grant program was open to all not-for-profit schools, except religious ones.

The Supreme Court held Monday that the state may not exclude churches from government programs that have a secular intent - such as children's health and safety, in the case of the playground grant.

Nonetheless, Missouri and the church both urged the justices to decide the case because of the important issues involved and because the governor's action was not irreversible.

In the midst of widespread protests at airports and reports of refugees, immigrants, and green-card holdersbarred from flights to the U.S., orders were challenged by some state judges within hours and in two different federal courts the following week.

The 8th U.S. Court of Appeals in St. Louis had upheld a lower court judge's decision against the church. Sotomayor and Gorsuch have previewed the larger fight to come, but the main of the Court is not there yet. The legislation says scholarships can go to any "qualified education provider" but the Department of Revenue said a school with a religious affiliation doesn't fit that category. "Religious freedom should protect unwilling taxpayers from funding church property, not force them to foot the bill". One can only hope that her admonition that 31 other states' restrictions against direct government funding of religion are now in jeopardy is true in the context of school choice.