U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court rules for church that wanted state grant to resurface playground

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The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a church's free-exercise rights were violated when it was denied a state grant to resurface its playground because it was a religious institution.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote the majority opinion (PDF) in a case brought by Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Missouri.

“The exclusion of Trinity Lutheran from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, solely because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution,” Roberts wrote, “and cannot stand.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented, in an opinion joined by Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Trinity Lutheran Church had sought to resurface its preschool playground with scrap tire material using money from the state grant program. The playground is used by the students as well as the surrounding community, and the church had argued it would provide a “wholly secular benefit” with the month.

Missouri turned down the church’s funding application because of a provision in its state constitution that says, “No money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect, or denomination of religion.”

The St. Louis-based 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled that Missouri could have awarded the grant to Trinity Lutheran without violating the establishment clause, but it was not compelled to do so by the free exercise clause.

The Supreme Court reversed and found a free exercise violation. “In this case, there is no dispute that Trinity Lutheran is put to the choice between being a church and receiving a government benefit,” Roberts wrote. “The rule is simple: No churches need apply.”

In her dissent, Sotomayor said the case was about more than simply resurfacing a playground.

“The stakes are higher,” she wrote. “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.”

Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Samuel Anthony Alito Jr. and Elena Kagan joined Roberts’ opinion in full. Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil M. Gorsuch joined the opinion in full, except for a footnote that reads: ”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.” Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote an opinion concurring in the judgment.

Gorsuch explained his objection to footnote 3 in a concurrence joined by Thomas. The footnote “is entirely correct,” Gorsuch said, but he worries that it may mistakenly read to suggest that only certain cases—such as those involving playground resurfacing, or children’s safety, or some or social good—are governed by the Trinity Lutheran decision.

“The general principles here do not permit discrimination against religious exercise—whether on the playground or anywhere else,” he wrote.

The case is Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Missouri v. Comer.

Related articles:

ABAJournal.com: “Justices appear sympathetic to Missouri church seeking playground improvements”

ABAJournal.com: “Is church entitled to state aid to buy playground covering?”

ABAJournal.com: “Chemerinsky: Is court delaying some oral arguments in hopes of 9th justice?”

ABAJournal.com: “State’s denial of funds for church playground will be considered by SCOTUS”

Corrected at 12:41 p.m. to state that Sotomayor wrote the dissent, joined by Ginsburg; corrected Aug. 1 to correctly name the case.

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