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Church Wins US Supreme Court Case on Playground Funding

27 June 2017

The Supreme Court has ruled in favor of a Missouri church that had sought a state grant to resurface the playground at its preschool.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled today that Columbia's Trinity Lutheran church has the same right as other charitable organizations to seek state money for non-religious purposes. Justice John Roberts wrote the opinion and stated that, although the state's policy "is nothing so dramatic as the denial of political office", "the 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 all the same, and can not stand". The state rejected the application of the Trinity Lutheran Church Learning Center from participation in the program because of its affiliation with the church.

"We don't want a state empowered to referee between theologies and to privilege some religious ideologies over others, even if that ideology is secularism", Moore said in a written commentary.

Neither do I see why the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause should care. And why did some justices disagree over a small footnote in the final ruling?

"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.

After a state court dismissed Trinity's complaint for failure to state a claim, the church appealed. In the days before the argument in April, Missouri's Republican Gov. Eric Greitens changed the state's policy and said churches would be allowed to apply for grants. He appointed former Missouri Solicitor General Jim Layton to represent the Department of Natural Resources in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. And play should be safe; safety shouldn't hinge on whether a child is religious or they are playing on a playground at a religious school or at a secular or public institution.

Next term, the court will consider the case of a Colorado baker who refused to make a cake for a same-sex couple's wedding reception because he said it would violate his religious liberty. The Interfaith Alliance and six Jewish groups also fought today's ruling.

The case arose from an application the church submitted in 2012 to take part in Missouri's scrap-tire grant program, which reimburses the cost of installing a rubberized playground surface made from recycled tires. "Blocking the church from a widely available public program, he said, "imposes special burdens on non-profit organizations with a religious identity" and amounted to hostility toward religion". The Court held that the Free Exercise clause requires giving the religious school access to a taxpayer funded benefit, even though there is not enough of that benefit to go around to even all of the public schools.

WASHINGTON (BP) - The U.S. Supreme Court struck a blow Monday (June 26) for the freedom of churches to participate in government programs with secular purposes. Or did a group build the playground so it might be used to advance a religious mission? Earlier this year, I reversed Missouri's policies that discriminated against religious organizations.

But the 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 all the same, and can not stand. Chief Justice John Roberts' majority opinion is a mere 15 pages long and the three concurrences were two, three, and two pages, respectively.

Gorsuch and Thomas, in their concurring decisions, advocate for the kind of broader protections that would justify vouchers to religious schools, Harvard professor Martin West told Politico. "By treating a state ban on aid to churches as a mark of discrimination, the court's decision upends precedent and adds confusion to the law", said Holly Holman, BJC general counsel.

"This decision marks a great day for the Constitution and sends a clear message that religious discrimination in any form can not be tolerated in a society that values the First Amendment".

From his first day on the bench when he dominated oral arguments, to Monday, when he wrote a dissent in a case related to gay marriage, joined his conservative colleagues in a fiery response to the travel ban case and possibly provided the necessary fourth vote for the court to hear a major religious liberty case, Gorsuch has broken the mold.

One interpretation of what that footnote means could be that a playground is a playground and redirecting public funds towards religious schools in the form of vouchers is another thing entirely so piss off about it for now.