US top court backs church in major religious rights case

Advocates for private-school vouchers cheered the Supreme Court's 7-2 decision Monday that the state of Missouri could not deny a playground resurfacing grant to a church, calling the decision a first step toward an end to state bans on using public money to pay tuition at parochial schools. Roberts said that's true even though the consequences are only "a few extra scraped knees".

By denying a benefit to a church school because of its avowedly religious character, he said, the state is penalizing the free exercise of religions guaranteed by the Constitution.

"Justice Sotomayor's dissent got it right - this case is about much more than a state program to use recycled tires to resurface a playground", the group's CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt, said in a statement. Justice Stephen Breyer filed an opinion concurring in Chief Justice Roberts' judgement. The church sued, claiming the decision violated its First Amendment right to free exercise of religion.

Apparently fearing a deadlock, the court postponed a hearing until it had a full nine members in April.

Foundation Senior Counsel John Eidsmoe (photo) added: "Trinity Lutheran Church did not seek any special benefits from the State of Missouri". In the preschool case, the playground grant was not related to religion. The ruling could jeopardize laws in other states created to keep a clear separation between church and state, a point emphasized by Sonia Sotomayor in her dissent.

Justice Sotomayor in her dissent disagreed entirely with the majority's take on the case. According to the liberal justices, the decision breaks the barrier between the church and state, and requires the state provide funds to the church. The decision could lead to an America "where separation of church and state is a constitutional slogan, not a constitutional commitment", they wrote.

The dispute involved Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Mo., and the state of Missouri. But the church, Trinity Lutheran, or any religious institution that apparently is now able to use taxpayer dollars for "non-religious" programs easily could use that same playground to teach children the Bible says homosexuality is an abomination and gay people should be put to death.

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The Missouri Department of Natural Resources, which administers the grant program, had enough money to fund 14 of the 44 applicants. This is good for all Americans, too, since our society is served in so many ways by religious institutions, which educate children, enrich the culture, assist the poor and immigrant, and care for the sick.

The discrimination against religious exercise in this case was Missouri's refusal to allow Trinity Lutheran "solely because it is a church" to compete with secular organizations for a grant, Roberts wrote.

"So it didn't address a facility that would be used by the church for worship purposes or for expressly religious purposes", he said.

When the state denied Trinity Lutheran's application, the conservative, Arizona-based legal group the Alliance Defending Freedom represented the church in a legal challenge. It lost at the federal district and appellate court levels, but the Supreme Court's decision in January 2016 to hear the case was seen as a positive sign. "It's funding the playground where students play". The Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution, in its own words, forbids only government action that prohibits the free exercise of religion; it does not require the government to subsidize churches or provide equal funding opportunities to religious and non-religious groups alike.

The court's decision reverses a ruling by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that had sided with the state's 2015 decision to exclude the school from obtaining grant funds.

"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. Among those who welcomed the ruling was Russell Moore, who heads the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

The teachers union used Colorado's Blaine Amendments to obstruct the Douglas County School District's Choice Scholarship Program, which included accredited religious schools.

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