Supreme Court Justices Show Sympathy for Missouri Church in State Aid Case

by Marta Holmes April 20, 2017, 9:18
Supreme Court Justices Show Sympathy for Missouri Church in State Aid Case

Trinity Lutheran has argued that Missouri's policy violates the U.S. Constitution's guarantees of free exercise of religion and equal protection under the law. The Trinity case is considered a precursor to one from the Douglas County School District in Colorado. "Whether you are a Jewish, Muslim, or Christian kid, or not religious at all, when you fall down on a playground, it hurts just as much at a religious preschool as it does at a non-religious school".

"The denial was because of who the organization was", Cortman said at Wednesday's news conference.

"This is a clear burden on a constitutional right", Kagan said. Justice Sonia Sotomayor echoed Layton, saying the Missouri constitutional provision didn't interfere with the right to free exercise of religion, but rather stepped aside from involvement in religion.

Gail Schuster, director of the Trinity Lutheran Child Learning Center, said in a YouTube video about the case that the school applied to the program to provide a safe playground for the preschoolers.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg balked at that assertion, noting that the Supreme Court said long ago "in no uncertain terms that what the Framers didn't want was tax money ... to pay for building or maintaining churches or church property".

When the government refuses to allow religious organizations to apply for grants funded through taxpayers' money, by contrast, it is in no way discriminating against any religious group. A ruling for Trinity Lutheran could help open the door to states funding church-affiliated charter schools, among other consequences.

The case is scheduled to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court Wednesday.

But whether the court will issue an expansive ruling on church-state issues or a narrow one exclusively aimed at the grant program is uncertain.

No money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect or denomination of religion or in aid of any priest, preacher, minister or teacher thereof, as such; and that no preference shall be given to nor any discrimination made against any church, sect or creed of religion or any form of religious faith or worship.

But the court's newest member, Neil Gorsuch wanted to know how to draw the line between when it's OK to discriminate for selective benefits and general benefits.

Greitens reversed Missouri's state policy of automatically excluding religious organizations from receiving state resources.

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"This religious exclusion wrongfully sends a message that some children are less worthy of protection simply because they enjoy recreation on a playground owned by a church", he said.

Layton, in an interview, said he will rely most heavily on a 2004 case from Washington state when the court decided the state could deny a scholarship to a student seeking a divinity degree.

Justice Clarence Thomas, in keeping with his customary practice, did not speak or ask questions during the argument.

The Columbia church case could become a game-changing case for religious freedom. Playgrounds, he argued, were a different matter. He stressed that nothing about the policy prohibits the church from engaging in religious exercise.

Trinity Lutheran's high-profile case was finally put on the argument schedule for April, just in time for Gorsuch to perhaps cast the deciding vote.

Religious freedom expert Gregory Lipper believes that a ruling in favor of the church could produce a slippery slope.

A statute Willadson says churches should be used to by now.

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources denied the application, citing a provision in the state constitution which bars the state from providing funds to religious entities. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito vigorously defended Trinity Lutheran's right to the funds, and Justice Anthony Kennedy appeared very troubled by the Missouri rule.

Justice Stephen Breyer asked whether the U.S. Constitution would permit a state to deprive churches of police protection or let them burn down.

After the arguments, Cortman was optimistic about the reception from the justices.

Missouri's new governor, Republican Eric Greitens, injected some uncertainty into the high-court case Thursday, when he directed state agencies to allow religious groups and schools to receive taxpayer money for playgrounds and other purposes. "That's just wrong", said Greitens. Both said it did not render the case moot - a position that appeared on Wednesday to be held by most of the court's justices as well.

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