Published: Wed, June 28, 2017
National | By Rosalie Gross

Public Benefit Programs Cannot Exclude Churches Solely Because They Are Religious

Public Benefit Programs Cannot Exclude Churches Solely Because They Are Religious

"But the suggestion that these changes will somehow obliterate the "wall of separation" ignores the many ways in which government funding already benefits religious institutions through tax benefits, grants, partnerships, even police and fire services", he said.

By a 7-2 vote, the justices sided with Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Missouri, which had sought a state grant to put a soft surface on its preschool playground. Trinity said the playground was for kids at the church's daycare, but was denied reimbursement. The Blaine Amendment was what the state argued when rejecting Trinity's application. On Monday, that playground became the focus of what could be one of the U.S. Supreme Court's most far-reaching religious freedom rulings in decades.

The U.S. Supreme Court handed down its ruling in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer today.

In this case, the State of Missouri had made scrap tire materials available to schools to spread over playgrounds to make them safer for children.

Two years ago, the Colorado Supreme Court struck down a program that allowed public money to indirectly fund religious schools in Douglas County, the suburban area that includes Lone Tree and Castle Rock.

While the Court's ruling is straightforward, Michael Moreland, Professor of Law and Religion at Villanova University, said that the balance of opinion among the justices was notable, showing that the majority supports a broad interpretation of religious liberty.

Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU's Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, said the organization is "disappointed" with the decision.

"To the contrary, it upholds the vital principal, enshrined in the anti-establishment clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, that the government can not and should not be involved in the support of any religion", said the group's Cindy Barnard.

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Attorneys representing the church hailed the victory, labeling this case an example of treating the safety of children the same whether they attend religious or non-religious schools.

Taxpayers For Public Education, which fought the Douglas County vouchers, said Tuesday the prohibition of public money to pay for private religious education is not in any way "bigoted". Trinity sued the State of Missouri, claiming the refusal constituted a violation of the church's right to free exercise of religion.

Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch concurred separately. The rule is simple: "No churches need apply".

In Monday's religious rights ruling, conservative Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the court, said the exclusion of a church from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified exclusively because it is a church was "odious to our Constitution". They considered it significant that 38 states have constitutional provisions similar to Missouri's, which evidences to them that "public funding of houses of worship 'is of a different ilk'".

As a nation, we are always testing the limits of religious liberty and the strength of the wall between church and state.

Had the court ruled against Trinity Lutheran it could have had far reaching consequences, such as jeopardizing religiously affiliated colleges from being eligible for student loans. 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".

Defending this bigotry was Americans United for Separation of Church and State, an organization that was itself founded as an anti-Catholic institution in the 1940s.

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