Photographer: Steffi Loos/Getty Images

Church Rights Strengthened by Supreme Court Playground Case

  • Funding ban for churches is unconsitutional, justices say
  • Sotomayor says majority undermines church-state separation

The U.S. Supreme Court fortified the legal rights of churches, ruling that Missouri officials violated the Constitution by excluding a religious preschool and daycare center from a program that pays for new playground surfaces.

The justices, voting 7-2 but splintering on their reasoning, said the categorical exclusion was a form of religious discrimination that penalized Trinity Lutheran Church and is "odious" to the Constitution.

"There is no dispute that Trinity Lutheran is put to the choice between being a church and receiving a government benefit," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority. "The rule is simple: No churches need apply."

Missouri is one of about three dozen states whose constitutions bar public dollars from going to religious institutions. The new Supreme Court ruling could provide fodder in legal fights over school voucher programs in some of those states.

The Missouri program uses scrap tires to resurface playgrounds. Trinity Lutheran Church, which runs a preschool in the town of Columbia, was one of 44 applicants for funding in 2012. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources ranked Trinity fifth on that list, but ultimately rejected the application and awarded grants to 14 other applicants.

Trinity said the rebuff violated its U.S. constitutional rights to free exercise of religion and equal protection.

A divided federal appeals court had upheld the exclusion of Trinity, pointing to a 2004 Supreme Court ruling that said states that offer college scholarships can deny them to students majoring in theology.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the decision "profoundly changes" the country’s commitment to separation of church and state and the principle that governments cannot provide taxpayer money to religious institutions.

"The court today blinds itself to the outcome this history requires and leads us instead to a place where separation of church and state is a constitutional slogan, not a constitutional commitment," Sotomayor wrote.

The ruling ends an unusually long Supreme Court fight. The court agreed to take up the case in January 2016, a month before Justice Antonin Scalia died. Faced with the prospect of a 4-4 split, the shorthanded court delayed scheduling arguments, eventually hearing the case in April 2017, after Justice Neil Gorsuch had been sworn in to fill Scalia’s seat.

The case is Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, 15-577.

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