Supreme Court ruling allows State funds for Missouri church

By a 7-2 vote, the Supreme Court justices sided with Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Missouri, which had sought a grant to put a soft surface on its preschool playground. The church was denied any money even though its application was ranked fifth out of 44 submissions.

The Associated Press wrote about the case here.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court that the state violated the First Amendment by denying a public benefit to an otherwise eligible recipient solely on account of its religious status. He called it “odious to our Constitution” to exclude the church from the grant program, even though the consequences are only “a few extra scraped knees.”

The case arose from an application the church submitted in 2012 to take part in Missouri’s scrap tire grant program, which reimburses the cost of installing a rubberized playground surface made from recycled tires. The money comes from a fee paid by anyone who buys a new tire. The church’s application to resurface the playground for its preschool and daycare ranked fifth out of 44 applicants.

But the state’s Department of Natural Resources rejected the application, pointing to the part of the state constitution that says “no money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect or denomination of religion.”

A recycled scrap tire is not religious, the church said in its Supreme Court brief. “It is wholly secular,” the church said.

But in dissent, Justice Sonya Sotomayor said the ruling weakens the nation’s longstanding commitment to separation of church and state.  ”This case is about nothing less than the relationship between religious institutions and the civil government — that is, between church and state,” she said, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “The Court today profoundly changes that relationship by holding, for the first time, that the Constitution requires the government to provide public funds directly to a church.”

There are many gray area cases in this area of First Amendment law.  It would be great if there was a bright line rule that made it easy to predict if something crossed the separation-of-church-and-state line, but there isn’t.  For example, should a student religious group have equal access to a meeting room after high school hours just as the gay students or a latino club?  Its a tough call.

It seems to me that in order to allow religious groups to stand up and enjoy equal status with other political or issue-oriented groups, they should pay their fair share and not receive any subsidies from the tax payers.  Religions should consider giving up their tax exemptions and other public subsidies.  Only then, can they lay equal claim to benefits enjoyed by non-religious groups in our communities.

 


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