(CN) – The Supreme Court ruled 7-2 Monday that Missouri cannot exclude a church preschool from a state program providing grants for playground resurfacing, finding the denial constitutes religious discrimination.
Trinity Church of Columbia operates a licensed preschool on its premises and in 2012 applied for a grant with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources to help pay for recycled tires to resurface the preschool’s playground.
Even though Trinity’s application ranked fifth out of 42 applications received by the DNR, it was denied based on Article 1, Section 7 of the Missouri Constitution, which states “no money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, section or denomination of religion.”
The DNR eventually granted 14 of the 42 applications it received.
Trinity sued, claiming constitutional violations of equal protection, religion, free speech and exercise. Trinity’s lawsuit also claimed that the DNR’s denial actually violated Article 1, Section 7 and sought injunctive relief against the department’s policies denying grants to applicants who are churches or religious organizations.
After a state court dismissed Trinity’s complaint for failure to state a claim, the church appealed. In a split decision, a three-judge panel of the Eighth Circuit affirmed the state court’s ruling.
“Although Trinity Church couched these claims as an attack on DNR’s ‘customs, policies and practices,’ all its claims are plainly facial attacks on Article I, § 7, of the Missouri Constitution … which was cited by DNR as the sole basis for its denial,” Judge James B. Loken wrote. “Viewed in this light, it is apparent that Trinity Church seeks an unprecedented ruling that a state constitution violates the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause if it bars the grant of public funds to a church. To prevail, Trinity Church must clear a formidable if not insurmountable hurdle, what appears to be controlling adverse precedent.”
The nation’s highest court on Monday reversed the Eighth Circuit and ruled that the Missouri DNR violated Trinity’s rights under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment by denying it an otherwise available public benefit based on its religious status.
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said the DNR’s policy is unconstitutional.
“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,” Roberts wrote. “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.”
The opinion notes that Roberts wrote the majority’s decision, aside from one particular footnote.
The footnote in question reads, “This case involves express discrimination based on religious identity with respect to playground resurfacing. We do not address religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination.”
The ruling states that Justices Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alito and Elena Kagan fully joined in the majority opinion, including the footnote. Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, like Roberts, joined except as to the footnote.
Gorsuch noted in a separate opinion his issue with the footnote.
“Of course the footnote is entirely correct, but I worry that some might mistakenly read it to suggest that only ‘playground resurfacing’ cases, or only those with some association with children’s safety or health, or perhaps some other social good we find sufficiently worthy, are governed by the legal rules recounted in and faithfully applied by the Court’s opinion,” Gorsuch said. “The general principles here do not permit discrimination against religious exercise—whether on the playground or anywhere else.”
Justice Stephen Breyer also wrote a separate opinion concurring in judgment, saying he would “leave the application of the Free Exercise Clause to other kinds of public benefits for another day.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a scathing dissent slamming the majority’s opinion, and was joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“To hear the Court tell it, this is a simple case about recycling tires to resurface a playground,” she wrote. “The stakes are higher. This case is about nothing less than the relationship between religious institutions and the civil government—that is, between church and state. The Court today profoundly changes that relationship by holding, for the first time, that the Constitution requires the government to provide public funds directly to a church. Its decision slights both our precedents and our history, and its reasoning weakens this country’s longstanding commitment to a separation of church and state beneficial to both.”
Sotomayor added, “If this separation means anything, it means that the government cannot, or at the very least need not, tax its citizens and turn that money over to houses of worship. The Court today blinds itself to the outcome this history requires and leads us instead to a place where separation of church and state is a constitutional slogan, not a constitutional commitment.”
Nicholas Little, legal director for the nonprofit educational group Center for Inquiry, blasted the majority’s ruling in a statement Monday, saying the Supreme Court “has detonated a massive breach in the wall of separation between church and state.”
“This case was never really about a playground or recycled tires,” Little said. “This was about whether religious institutions can be eligible for public funds for what they claim are secular purposes. The Court has long held that the direct cash funding of religious organizations violates the Constitution. In paying for the renovation of its playground, the state of Missouri relieves Trinity Lutheran Church of a financial burden, which frees the church to use those funds for explicitly sectarian purposes. That is unacceptable.”
He said the Center for Inquiry is “deeply concerned about what happens next, as other sectarian organizations find new and novel ways to siphon taxpayer dollars into their churches, temples, and mosques.”
However, the religious civil liberties law firm Liberty Counsel praised Monday's ruling, calling it a "huge victory."
"If the government were permitted to discriminate against Trinity Lutheran Church in this case, then such discrimination could extend to other wide ranging forms of religious discrimination, which might include disqualifying religious hospitals from Medicare or Medicaid funds to treat patients,” said Mat Staver, the firm's founder and chairman. "I am particularly pleased with the precise and originalist approach of Justice Gorsuch, whose concurring opinion states that the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause does not allow for distinctions between religious status and religious use."
Subscribe to Closing Arguments
Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.