The United States Supreme Court on June 26 ruled 7-2 in favor of a church seeking public funds for a new playground surface, saying religious organizations have the same right to seek state money for non-religious uses as other charitable groups.
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented.
Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Missouri, had applied for a grant to resurface the church’s preschool playground, but was denied the money solely because it was associated with a church.
“The Missouri Department of Natural Resources has not subjected anyone to chains or torture on account of religion. And the result of the State’s policy is nothing so dramatic as the denial of political office. The consequence is, in all likelihood, a few extra scraped knees. But 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 all the same, and cannot stand,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts.
Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, chair of the U.S. bishops’ Committee of Religious Liberty, released a statement applauding the ruling.
“Today’s decision is a landmark victory for religious freedom. The Supreme Court rightly recognized that people of faith should not be discriminated against when it comes to government programs that should be made available to all,” Lori aid.
“The decision also marks a step in the right direction toward limiting the effects of the pernicious Blaine Amendments that are in place in many states around the country. Blaine Amendments to state constitutions, most of which date back to the nineteenth century, stem from a time of intense anti-Catholic bigotry in many parts of the country,” the archbishop said. “We are glad to see the Supreme Court move toward limiting these harmful provisions, which have restricted the freedom of faith-based organizations and people of faith to serve their communities.”
Religious freedom advocates likewise supported the decision.
“This decision is significant because seven of the justices agreed that churches can’t be treated as second-class citizens when it comes to widely available public safety benefits,” said Hannah Smith, senior counsel at Becket, a non-profit religious liberty law firm that filed a friend-of-the-court brief on the school’s behalf.
In a statement, David Cortman, the senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, said the “Supreme Court’s decision today affirms that commonsense principle and the larger truth that government isn’t being neutral when it treats religious organizations worse than everyone else.”
Cortman said “the government should treat children’s safety at religious schools the same as it does at nonreligious schools.”
In an amicus brief, the United States bishops’ conference warned that if the decision against the church had stood, it “would invite state officials to invoke those concerns as a pretext for penalizing religious groups whose beliefs or practices diverge from government-prescribed orthodoxy.”
The funds to the school had been denied due to Missouri’s “Blaine Amendment,” named for late 19th century Maine congressman James Blaine.
During a period of anti-Catholic bigotry, Blaine proposed an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to deny any public funds to parochial schools. Although the proposed law never passed the Senate, several states added Blaine Amendments to their state constitutions.
According to Beckett, Blaine Amendments like Missouri’s have been used to discriminate against people of all faiths including a Florida prisoner ministry, a Catholic orphanage, and several religious schools, preventing them from participating in public benefit programs.
“Today’s decision in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer rings the death knell for anti-Catholic Blaine Amendments,” said Ashley McGuire, Senior Fellow with The Catholic Association in a statement.
“For over a century, Blaine Amendments have enshrined into law discrimination against faith-based charities and schools that form an essential part of American society,” McGuire said, noting their anti-Catholic origin. “Today’s decision demands a more fair and inclusive approach to government programs meant to serve all people.”
Of particular interest for Court watchers was the fact this was the first significant religious liberty case for new associate justice Neil Gorsuch, who sided with the majority.
However, in his concurring opinion, Gorsuch expressed his doubts over the court’s suggestion “the possibility a useful distinction might be drawn between laws that discriminate on the basis of religious status and religious use.”
He said the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause shouldn’t care about such distinctions.
“After all, that Clause guarantees the free exercise of religion, not just the right to inward belief (or status),” he wrote.