Supreme Court rules in favor of church in religious rights case

Henrietta Brewer
June 27, 2017

Missouri originally denied funding to Trinity Lutheran Church based on its status as a religious institution, but its defenders argued that this constituted religious discrimination.

Churches and other religious entities can not be flatly denied public money even in states where constitutions explicitly ban such funding, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Monday in a major religious rights case that narrows the separation of church and state.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in her dissent, "If this separation means anything, it means that the government can not, or at the very least need not, tax its citizens and turn that money over to houses of worship". As Chief Justice Roberts summed things up near the end of his majority opinion for six justices, "the exclusion of Trinity Lutheran from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, exclusively because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution".

"This Court has repeatedly confirmed that denying a generally available benefit exclusively on account of religious identity imposes a penalty on the free exercise of religion", he continued. The court ruled with a seven justice majority that churches can not be denied public funds just because they are a religious organization.


Gedicks and many others following the case expected this outcome, which resolves the most high-profile religious freedom issue before the Supreme Court this term. But why should someone be barred from accessing otherwise generally available funding only because the profession he wished to follow was religious?

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled in favor of same-sex couples who complained that an Arkansas birth certificate law discriminated against them, reversing a state court's ruling that married lesbian couples must get a court order to have both spouses listed on their children's birth certificates.

At the same time, the fundamental separation of church and state remains a critical goal.

But the pro-school choice Center for Education Reform said that even without reviewing the constitutionality of Missouri's prohibition on the use of state funds at religious schools, the justices had bolstered the choice movement by condemning the denial of a public benefit to an otherwise eligible recipient exclusively on the basis of its religious identity.


GJELTEN: But Chief Justice Roberts did add a footnote that limited the ruling's significance.

"The government should treat children's safety at religious schools the same as it does at nonreligious schools", said David Cortman, senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom. 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.

The grants buy recycled tires to resurface playgrounds.

"The general principles here do not permit discrimination against religious exercise - whether on the playground or anywhere else", Gorsuch said. The preschool was denied the grant for its playground because the playground belongs to a religious organization. The Establishment Clause does not allow Missouri to grant the church's funding request because the church uses the Learning Center, including its playground, in conjunction with its religious mission. Finally bolstered by the confirmation of Justice Neil Gorsuch in April, 14 months after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the court clearly sided with the church during oral argument.


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