U.S. Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Trinity Lutheran in Missouri Church-State Case

By Raasch, Chuck | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), June 27, 2017 | Go to article overview

U.S. Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Trinity Lutheran in Missouri Church-State Case


Raasch, Chuck, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


WASHINGTON * In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court overturned lower courts Monday and decided in favor of a Columbia, Mo., church, that had argued that its constitutional rights had been violated by the state Department of Natural Resources' denial of scrap rubber for its playground.

Writing for the majority in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia vs. Comer, Chief Justice John Roberts proclaimed that Trinity was "asserting a right to participate in a government benefit program without having to disavow its religious character.

"The express discrimination against religious exercise here is not the denial of a grant, but rather the refusal to allow the church solely because it is a church to compete with secular organizations for a grant," Roberts wrote, in a decision in which Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, Anthony Kennedy, Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Samuel Alito concurred.

Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented. In a strongly worded dissent twice as long as Roberts' majority, Sotomayor warned that "the court today blinds itself" to the history of church-state separation, "and leads us instead to a place where separation of church and state is a constitutional slogan, not a constitutional commitment."

Missouri's top elected officials praised the decision, despite the fact that it was the state under the previous administration of Democrat Jay Nixon that had argued that it had constitutionally denied Trinity participation in a scrap-rubber program based on a 19th-century state constitutional amendment.

In a statement, Gov. Eric Greitens, a Republican, said that "people of faith won an important victory today.

"Earlier this year, I reversed Missouri's policies that discriminated against religious organizations," he said, of his April decision to Nixon's policy and allow religious organizations to receive state grants under the program. "The ACLU and others attacked our decision. We did not back down, and we will continue to fight for people of faith."

Attorney General Josh Hawley said the decision created "a great day for Missouri's Trinity Lutheran Church, and an even better day for religious freedom in America."

Hawley singled out Nixon by name, saying the previous governor "was wrong to interpret Missouri's constitution to require such unlawful discrimination. Today's decision means discrimination of this kind will never be permitted again in the state of Missouri, or anywhere."

OTHER REACTION

David Cortman, the lawyer who argued the case for Trinity, said the ruling was not a "government endorsement of religion."

Cortman, who works for the Alliance Defending Freedom, added, "As the Supreme Court rightly found, unequal treatment that singles out a preschool for exclusion from such a program (that Missouri offered) simply because a church runs the school is clearly unconstitutional."

But Daniel Mach, head of a program on freedom of religion for the ACLU, issued a statement saying the ACLU was "disappointed" in the decision.

"Religious freedom should protect unwilling taxpayers from funding church property, not force them to foot the bill," he said. "The court's ruling, however, focuses specifically on grants for playground resurfacing and does not give the government unlimited authority to fund religious activity."

In his majority decision, Roberts wrote that "the express discrimination against religious exercise here is not the denial of a grant, but rather the refusal to allow the church - solely because it is a church - to compete with secular organizations for a grant.

"The consequence (of denying the church) is, in all likelihood, a few extra scraped knees," Roberts wrote, referring to the church's attempt to cover pea gravel with the state's recycled rubber. …

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