Supreme Court scuttles a church-state schooner

In the Supreme Court of the United States, justices ruled today that the Missouri Department of Natural Resources’ express policy of denying grants to any applicant owned or controlled by a church, sect, or other religious entity violated the rights of Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc, under the free exercise clause of the First Amendment by denying the church an otherwise available public benefit on account of its religious status, SCOTUS Blog reports.

The case, known as Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, found Trinity Lutheran on the long end of a 7-2 majority, with only Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissenting. Ms Sotomayor wrote in dissent:

This case is about nothing less than the relationship between religious institutions and the civil government—that is, between church and state. …

The Court today profoundly changes that relationship by holding, for the first time, that the Constitution requires the government to provide public funds directly to a church. Its decision slights both our precedents and our history, and its reasoning weakens this country’s longstanding commitment to a separation of church and state beneficial to both.

As big as this decision might be, the case started with a fairly ordinary dispute about a subject as mundane as child’s play, as we reported in October. The church applied for funds from the state to resurface a playground it owned using recycled tires. The state’s Department of Natural Resources denied the funding on the sole basis that Trinity Lutheran was affiliated with a religious denomination.

The Court didn’t really concern itself with the motivation of the dispute, though, just with the constitutionality of the question of whether it was right and just to deny funding to a church for playground equipment and maintenance, just because it was a church. That is, can the state of Missouri deny funding to Trinity Lutheran Church for playground equipment that would be given to any non-religious organization just because it’s a church?

In October we reported that about three dozen state constitutions prohibit the use of taxpayer dollars to fund churches or any programs those churches run, including schools. But we also noted that the government can’t discriminate against those schools or the students who decide to attend them. This rule has been enforced, most publicly, with the use of federal funds that benefit programs for disadvantaged or disabled students at religious schools.

But here it was found that playground equipment shares a value on par with those other publicly available programs, a value the state can’t deny: funds must be made equally available for playground equipment to non-religious and religious organizations alike.

This Court has repeatedly confirmed that denying a generally available benefit solely on account of religious identity imposes a penalty on the free exercise of religion. …

The Department’s policy expressly discriminates against otherwise eligible recipients by disqualifying them from a public benefit solely because of their religious character. … The … policy puts Trinity Lutheran to a choice: It may participate in an otherwise available benefit program or remain a religious institution. When the State conditions a benefit in this way, … the State has imposed a penalty on the free exercise of religion that must withstand the most exacting scrutiny.

The chief justice added an important footnote in the majority decision that would seem to limit the scope of the opinion: “This case involves express discrimination based on religious identity with respect to playground resurfacing. … We do not address religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination.”

The question remains: Can such a fine line be drawn? Once the church gets the state’s money, the state no longer has any control, and it might be used for religious purposes, which could violate the First Amendment. But the majority here found that, ultimately, the state can’t discriminate against the church in terms of providing the funds for a pubic purpose.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.