They argue that if a playground operated by a church day care is a purely secular amenity, so, too, is a church school.
“The case matters because the court here recognizes the difference between a government establishing a religion and a government choosing not to penalize a religion”, ERLC President Russell Moore wrote in an online article after the court issued its ruling. NPR’s Tom Gjelten has the story.
More specifically, the concern was that Missouri was violating the free-exercise clause when the prohibited Trinity Lutheran from being able to participate in a secular, neutral aid program. How far does the First Amendment right to freely exercise our faith extend before it crashes into the amendment’s other protection that the government not favor one set of religious beliefs? But when exactly does the determination not to establish religion become an effort to prohibit religion?
To hear the Court tell it, this is a simple case about recycling tires to resurface a playground.
At issue was a playground owned by Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Missouri, and operated by the church’s preschool. But the state constitution bars the use of public funds for churches, so the application was denied.
Among the parties supporting the state’s rejection of the application was the ACLU. The rejection was based on a Missouri constitutional provision which, like those in some 36 other states, bars state aid to religious schools. “But the court went out of its way to clarify that today’s decision addressed only grants for playground resurfacing”.
Roberts added in the conclusion of the Court’s decision that the exclusion of Trinity from a public benefit because of its religious character was “odious to the Constitution”. Among those who welcomed the ruling was Russell Moore, who heads the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Child’s play got very serious indeed at the US Supreme Court today (June 26). Joining Roberts were Justices Anthony Kennedy, Sameul Alito and Elena Kagan in the decision to include a caveat limiting the scope of their ruling.
The decision threw into doubt the scope not just of Missouri’s constitutional ban on taxpayer funding for “any church, sect, or denomination of religion”, but of similar laws in about three-fourths of the states. What’s wrong is only when the government is subsidizing the church because it’s a church.
Justices Thomas and Gorsuch filed separate concurrences, based primarily on a footnote (footnote 3) that may be read to limit this case to its facts. For instance, he said, CT has an amendment that says “no law shall ever be made, authorizing [the School Fund] to be diverted to any other use than the encouragement and support of public schools”.
Lawyers representing the Douglas County School District and families who participated in the voucher program before it was halted by a lower court said they expect the Supreme Court to decide this week whether they’ll take up the years long debate over the voucher program.
“The court made it clear you can’t be excluded from generally available government programs because of your faith”, said Eric Baxter, general counsel at the Becket Fund.
There’s also this: It will be interesting to see whether the same Americans who applaud this ruling as applied to a Lutheran church in Columbia, Missouri, will still approve when its precedent is applied to, say, a mosque in NY – assuming, of course, that it is. Six justices joined him, while justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented and was joined by justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.