Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

How Far Do the Religion Clauses Go?

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

How Far Do the Religion Clauses Go?

Article excerpt

"Separation of church and state" is a highly misleading phrase frequently used to reflect a particular view of the First Amendment's establishment clause, but do we really know what it means? We know the Constitution protects the free exercise of religion, but what does that mean, and how far does it go? And what do we do when both are in play?

The U.S. Supreme Court just announced its ruling Monday on a case that includes the interplay between these two, and the takeaway is this: "Separation of church and state" is merely one conceptualization of a constitutional provision, while the free exercise of religion is a constitutionally protected right.

Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer is a case involving a recycling program that the state of Missouri developed to remove scrap tires from landfills and reuse them for beneficial purposes, such as rubber for playground surfaces to enhance safety and reduce injuries to the children playing. The state opened up the program to nonprofits, specifically including preschools. Each school had to complete a fairly detailed application that state officials scored and ranked based on neutral criteria. The state then awarded the top 14 applicants out of 44 with a partial reimbursement grant from a fund generated by a small fee on each new tire purchased within the state.

Trinity Learning Center, the Columbia, Mo., preschool that Trinity Lutheran Church runs, was ranked fifth and was slated to receive a grantuntil the state decided that the Missouri Constitution's version of the "separation of church and state" required any church or religious organization to be excluded from any state program that includes "direct or indirect" aid.

But what about the free exercise clause within the First Amendment? Don't the church and preschool have protection from being discriminated against based solely on who they are or their religious status? And wouldn't this concept protect religious individuals also?

Trinity certainly thought so. Through its attorneys with Alliance Defending Freedom, it filed suit against the state to argue that free exercise protections forbid the government from excluding it from this program solely because a church operates the preschool. …

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