In a closely watched religious rights case involving public money being awarded to religious entities, U.S. Supreme Court justices on Wednesday signaled alliance with a church that sued Missouri for denying a state taxpayer-funded grant for a playground project.
Justices on both sides of the ideological aisle indicated that Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Missouri, should be allowed to apply for the state grant program that assists nonprofit groups in purchasing rubber playground surfaces made from recycled tires. Trinity Lutheran operates a preschool and daycare center.
The case is considered one of the most significant to be heard by the court during its current term due to its testing of the limits of religious freedom under the U.S. Constitution.
The Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian activist group, represented the church in the case which could result in an unbalanced win, with liberals Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer joining their conservative colleagues by intimating their support.
“It seems to me … this is a clear burden on a constitutional right,” Kagan said, referring to the state prohibition.
The church contended that Missouri’s policy violates the U.S. Constitution’s guarantees of free exercise of religion and equal protection under the law.
Raising a question regarding whether denying churches access to the playground grants would be similar to refusing to provide police or fire services, Breyer asked, “What’s the difference?”
As pointed out by conservative Justice Samuel Alito, there are several federal grant programs open to religious entities, including one that provides funds to bolster security at facilities that are at risk of terrorist attacks.
Among those that have received grants under the program are synagogues, mosques and religious schools, according to a brief filed by the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America in support of Trinity Lutheran’s position.
When asked by Alito if religious entities would be barred from applying if Missouri had a similar program, the state’s lawyer, James Layton, confirmed that they would be prohibited.
Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor indicated support for Missouri’s position, citing the difficulty states could encounter when separating the secular and religious functions of religiously affiliated groups when distributing grant money.
Missouri’s constitution prohibits “any church, sect or denomination of religion” from receiving state money, a policy that goes further than the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment requirement of the separation of church and state. Three-quarters of U.S. states have policies similar to Missouri’s that prohibit funding for religious entities.
Last Thursday, Missouri’s Republican governor, Eric Greitens, reversed the state policy being argued in the case, contending that it was wrong for “government bureaucrats” to deny grants to “people of faith who wanted to do things like make community playgrounds for kids.”
Missouri and Trinity Lutheran urged the court to decide the case anyway due to the important principles in question and because the governor’s order was not irreversible.
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