Supreme Court sides with church in playground 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

"Today, the Court issued a strong decision in defense of religious freedom, reminding states that they can not exclude groups or individuals from public benefits simply due to their religion", said Carrie Severino, chief counsel of the Judicial Crisis Network, a conservative group based in Washington.

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. The idea that this somehow amounts to government sponsoring religion beggars belief; it is rather, and plainly so, an example of government discriminating against a religious entity. "The church applied for a state grant to resurface its gravel playground surface with a rubberized surface", reported Correspondent Doug McKelway. NPR's Tom Gjelten has the story. Roberts said this violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Neither can it pass a law prohibiting the free exercise of religion. And as the requests for private religious vouchers roll in, folks will be shocked and surprised to find that Muslim and satanic and flying spaghetti monster houses of worship will line up for money, then the feds will have to come up with a mechanism for determining "legitimacy" and voila!

John McGinnis, a professor of constitutional law at Northwestern University, said the church made its case "by appealing to a very general principal under the bill of rights".

"Trinity Lutheran was simply asking that the government play fair, treat churches equally, and help the preschool make its playground safer for children", Smith said.

Attorneys representing Missouri argued the state's citizens had chose to deny public funds to religious organizations and that nothing in the state constitution prevented church members from free exercise of their religion. "The state merely declines to offer financial support". Dan Mach, who directs its freedom of religion program, says direct grants to churches amount to the unconstitutional establishment of religion.

"It would be entirely open to the state (to require) that all of the playgrounds have to be open to people of all sexual preferences", he argued.

GJELTEN: But the court today disagreed. Religious liberty wins are great and important.

Maureen Ferguson, senior policy advisor with The Catholic Association, called the ruling "a significant victory for fairness and government neutrality towards religious institutions". The couple filed discrimination charges and won before a civil rights commission and in the courts.

The Missouri program uses scrap tires to resurface playgrounds.

Opponents in California and in other states whose constitutions ban using taxpayer money for religious schools, while disappointed with the ruling, are warning not to read too much into it. What's wrong is only when the government is subsidizing the church because it's a church.

The statement added: "Although the decision is narrowly focused, the US Supreme Court appears to have taken a disturbing step back from this commitment today". Bible readings, hymn singing, and daily prayer were standard practice in most public schools. But why should someone be barred from accessing otherwise generally available funding only because the profession he wished to follow was religious? They put low-income students at a disadvantage to children whose parents can afford school choice without state-based anti-religion bigotry. That didn't happen today. I don't see why it should matter whether we describe that benefit, say, as closed to Lutherans (status) or closed to people who do Lutheran things (use). Though the Court hasn't affirmatively ruled in favor of the case, they have lifted previous courts' stays on the ban, meaning travel restrictions will go into effect this Thursday.

We will continue to maintain that compelling taxpayers to fund religious institutions with which they are not affiliated conflicts with core constitutional principles.

Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a dissenting opinion saying the court had swept away legal precedents that allow for limits on state funding of churches.

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