A Central Missouri church has won a major victory before the U.S. Supreme Court that may open the door to religious organizations having equal access to the secular use of public funding. The decision by the High Court raises new questions about the constitutionality of provisions in many state constitutions which prohibit any financial relationship between the public treasury and religious institutions.
The Supreme Court ruled emphatically last week that the State of Missouri had violated the Free Exercise rights of Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia when it disqualified its grant application under the state’s Scrap Tire Program. Under that program, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) awards grants to nonprofit organizations which install playground surfaces made from recycled tires.
Trinity Lutheran applied for a $20,000 grant under that program in 2012 to resurface the playground at its preschool and daycare center known as the Trinity Lutheran Child Learning Center. Despite the fact that Trinity’s grant application ranked 5th out of 44 applicants, DNR denied the church’s grant, citing a section of Missouri’s Constitution barring state aid to sectarian organizations.
Article I, Section 7 of Missouri’s Constitution reads in part that “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…”
That provision is commonly referred to as the Blaine Amendment. It is similar to language adopted by many states in their constitutions in the 1870’s which were inspired by Senator James Blaine of Maine. Historians are generally in agreement that the Blaine Amendments (now on the books in 37 states) were designed to guarantee that no public funds were distributed to parochial schools during a period of rising anti-Catholic sentiment.
In a surprising 7-2 decision that included two liberal members of the U.S. Supreme Court, the justices ruled that the State of Missouri violated the First Amendment Free Exercise rights of the church by “denying an otherwise available public benefit on account of the applicant’s religious status.”
Chief Justice John Roberts, who authored the opinion for the High Court, stated that “automatic and absolute exclusion” of a church from the benefits of a public program solely because of its religious character “punishes the free exercise of religion” and “is odious to our Constitution.”
“The Free Exercise Clause protects against laws that impose special disabilities on the basis of religious status …and single out the religious for disfavored treatment,” Roberts wrote. Yet the Chief Justice also appended a footnote to the decision saying that the ruling does not address other religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination besides the issue of playground resurfacing.
That footnote didn’t sit well with Justice Clarence Thomas and newly seated Justice Neil Gorsuch. They argued that the scope of the decision should not be restricted to cases of children’s safety or health, or some other social good. “The general principles…faithfully applied by the Court’s opinion…do not permit discrimination against religious exercise—whether on the playground or anywhere else,” the two wrote.
Justice Sonia Sotamayor authored a vigorous dissent, saying that “the Court for the first time [has ruled] that the Constitution requires the government to provide public funds directly to a church.” She stated that such a public subsidy “impermissibly advances religion” in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
James Layton, who defended the State of Missouri’s position on behalf of the Attorney General’s office, argued that while the First Amendment prevents the government from discriminating against religion, “it does not guarantee churches opportunities for public financing.” “Trinity Lutheran remains free to worship, pray, and practice any other aspect of its faith however it wishes. The State merely declines to offer financial support.”
The Alliance Defending Freedom represented Trinity Lutheran in the case. Senior Counsel David Cortman said the ruling “affirms the commonsense principle that government isn’t being neutral when it treats religious organizations worse than everyone else…Equal treatment of a religious organization in a program that provides only secular benefits…isn’t a government endorsement of religion.”
“Trinity Lutheran Church has faithfully served the people of Columbia, Missouri, for over 90 years,” Cortman added. “Whether providing support for foster children, donating labor, food, and funds to a local county food bank, or helping with Habitat for Humanity building projects, Trinity Lutheran Church lives its mission to be disciples. A rubber surface on its playground accomplishes the state’s purposes whether it cushions the fall of the pious or the profane.”
What the future portends for Missouri’s Blaine Amendment and that of other states will only be determined by future decisions of the Supreme Court or the nation’s appellate courts. What is clear for now is that a significant crack has occurred in Article I, Section 7 of Missouri’s Constitution. How deep that fissure in the state’s supreme law will prove to be only time will tell.