Sunday, 17 February, 2019

Supreme Court rules for church preschool in religious liberty case

Children play on the playground at the Trinity Lutheran Child Learning Center in Columbia Mo Children play on the playground at the Trinity Lutheran Child Learning Center in Columbia Mo. Courtesy of Alliance Defending Freedom
Alfredo Watts | 27 June, 2017, 07:36

Missouri argued there was nothing unconstitutional about its grant program, noting that Trinity Lutheran remained free to practice its faith however it wants despite being refused state funds. Similar Blaine amendments exist in 37 other state's constitutions, after Rep. James Blaine of Maine's unsuccessful attempt for a similar amendment in the U.S. Constitution in 1875.

And Monday's ruling could change that dynamic.

The case, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, concerned a Missouri rule that barred churches from a program that allowed groups to be reimbursed for resurfacing playgrounds with recycled tires. The church's playground at the time was covered with pea gravel, and it remains so.

Adding in the Sotomayor/Ginsburg dissent which is not about this parochial life at all, and you can make a case that the Trinity Lutheran decision is very good for religious schools who want taxpayer funded upgrades, but not particularly useful for religious schools who want taxpayers to fund their larger operations. "It is wholly secular", the church said. "Our society has benefited from their selfless commitment to help communities since our country's founding, and the insistence of some in our society that we push them out of the public square because their love of neighbor comes from their love of God is ridiculous".

The case grows out of a lawsuit filed by Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Missouri, after it lost out on a grant for its playground in 2012 despite being ranked fifth out of 44 applicants.

"This decision marks a great day for the Constitution and sends a clear message that religious discrimination in any form can not be tolerated in a society that values the First Amendment", she said in a statement. People of faith can not be treated like second-class citizens. He blamed "government bureaucrats" and said he would defend "people of faith who are too often under attack". "The playground surface can not be confined to secular use any more than lumber used to frame the church's walls, glass stained and used to form its windows, or nails used to build its altar".

"So what the court's decision does is start to chip away at some of the Blaine amendments that are on the books now in nearly 40 states", she told Catholic News Service in an interview. It was used by both church members and non-members, they insisted, and should not be ruled ineligible for a state benefit program available to other entities just because it is owned by a religious institution. "If the court had gone another way, we could have seen lots of challenges to programs that we have, partnerships with, between Catholic institutions and state and local governments, even the federal government". "So I think there's a chance that probably from one of those states a case will come back to the court and they will have to decide on this question".

Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the decision "undermines the bedrock principle that no American should be forced to support a religion against his or her will". The alliance provides legal help nationwide to religious groups alleging discrimination by government. Previously, Christian-based abstinence organizations have been denied funding and pro-life organizations have been denied participation in governmental programs.

"The court held that denying a generally available public benefit exclusively on account of religious identity violates the free exercise of religion", Whitehead said. But only Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined it. Astonishingly, both Obama's other nominee, Elena Kagan, and the Clinton nominee Stephen Breyer joined Roberts to vote to require Missouri to provide the funding. The 'imposition of such a condition upon even a gratuitous benefit inevitably deter [s] or discourage [s] the exercise of First Amendment rights.' Sherbert, 374 U.

In her dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the court ruling led "to a place where separation of church and state is a constitutional slogan, not a constitutional commitment".

To opponents and supporters of such taxpayer aid to religious schools, Monday's decision in the Trinity Lutheran case is the camel's nose in the tent.

"We should all celebrate the fact that programs created to help students will no longer be discriminated against by the government based exclusively on religious affiliation", she said in a statement posted on the Department of Education's website.