Supreme Court backs church in key religious rights 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

"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", Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority decision.

"The outcome is, in all likelihood, a few extra scraped knees".

Lawyers for Trinity Lutheran argued that the state's denial of funds for the playground project violated the U.S. Constitution.

Trinity Lutheran Church in Missouri, the plaintiff in a potential landmark First Amendment case at the U.S. Supreme Court.

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. "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", Roberts wrote, "and can not stand".

In a decision released Monday morning in the case of Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, the highest court in the nation concluded that Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia should not be barred from a state program meant to help fix their daycare playground, reversing a lower court decision.

In denying the church's bid for public funding, Missouri cited its constitution that bars "any church, sect or denomination of religion" or clergy member from receiving state money, language that goes further than the U.S. Constitution's separation of church and state.

In her dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote, "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".

In 2012, Trinity Lutheran applied for a grant to modify the playground surface at the church's Learning Center, but their grant was rejected later that year. Reversing the state policy, he said religious organizations must now be permitted to apply for and be eligible for state grants.

Alliance Defending Freedom took up the cause for the church and is fighting the state's decision in court. The exclusion has raised big questions about how to uphold the Constitution's prohibition on government support for religion without discriminating against those who are religious.

Attorney David A. Cortman addresses the Supreme Court justices in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Missouri Dept. on Natural Resources on April 19, 2017.

But Missouri had claimed that its constitutional provision did nothing to interfere with a church's religious activities.

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