Supreme Court rules for Columbia church in playground case
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court has ruled that churches have the same right as other charitable groups to seek state money for new playground surfaces and other non-religious needs.
The justices on Monday ruled 7-2 in favor of Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Missouri. The church sought a grant to put a soft surface on its preschool playground, but was denied any money even though its application was ranked fifth out of 44 submissions.
Chief Justice John Roberts said for the court that it "is odious to our Constitution" to exclude the church from the grant program. Roberts said that's true even though the consequences are only "a few extra scraped knees.”
In a release, Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Counsel David Cortman said, "The government should treat children’s safety at religious schools the same as it does at nonreligious schools.”
Cortman also said, "equal treatment of a religious organization in a program that provides only secular benefits, like a partial reimbursement grant for playground surfacing, isn’t a government endorsement of religion.”
Earlier this year, Governor Eric Greitens reversed Missouri's policy that discriminated against religious organizations, so that churches may now apply for the money.
"Like our administration, the Supreme Court decided that people of faith should not be discriminated against," Greitens said in a statement. "Missouri is home to many excellent religious organizations that serve our kids, our families, and our communities. We will continue to work together with these organizations to help the people of Missouri.”
The attorney for the respondent said he was not surprised about Monday’s ruling, but he does not know if this ruling resolves many questions in the near future in Missouri.
"Missouri still has a constitutional provision that bars public money going to churches, and all that the court here said that you couldn’t have a program that excluded churches and no one else," James Layton said. "It did not say that our provision barring money going to churches was itself unconstitutional."
Layton said the immediate impact of the decision may depend on how courts address it when the case gets sent back to the lower federal courts, but the Alliance Defending Freedom CEO said the case will be a warning to other states.
"If you push too far on the trying to keep religious people out of public life you’re gonna violate the decision and more importantly you’re going to violate the free exercise clause in the constitution," Mike Farris said.
The justices were careful to say the ruling applied narrowly to just this case.
"The Supreme Court decided to rule rather narrowly on this and just kind of stick to the facts in the case at hand," Michael McShane, Show-Me Institute Director of Education Policy, said. "Some folks had hoped they would issue a bit broader ruling, so I would imagine this is by no means the last word on these sorts of questions about how religious organizations intersect with the government."
The case is one of the first to be decided on with new Justice Neil Gorsuch, who was appointed by President Donald Trump after the death of Antonin Scalia. Farris said he was not surprised on the way Gorsuch ruled in the case.
"His track record before he became a supreme court justice was very strong on religious freedom for everybody," Farris said.
The preschool was not awarded the grant. This is something that will have to be worked out in the lower federal courts level.