The Supreme Court has agreed to consider whether a state natural resources agency violated the First Amendment when it refused to grant funds to a preschool and daycare run by a church.
In 2012, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Mo., applied for a state grant to pay for replacing pea gravel at its Learning Center’s playground with recycled rubber material, considered a safer alternative.
Missouri’s Department of Natural Resources denied the grant, arguing that spending state funds on playground equipment at Trinity would violate the state’s constitutional prohibition against using public funds to aid a religion.
Trinity sued, contending that the church’s First Amendment right to equal protection and free exercise of religion sheltered it from state discrimination on the basis of religion.
“No state can define religious neutrality as treating religious organizations worse than everyone else,” David Cortman, senior counsel for the Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom, said in a statement. “That isn’t neutrality; it’s a hostility to religion that violates the First Amendment.”
However, an American Civil Liberties Union amicus brief said the prohibition is about protecting taxpayers from forced subsidization of religion and safeguarding the integrity of free public schools.
The 8th Circuit Court agreed, upholding a previous District Court decision:
It is apparent that Trinity Church seeks an unprecedented ruling—that a state constitution violates the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause if it bars the grant of public funds to a church. … In our view, only the Supreme Court can make that leap.
Earlier this month, the Supreme Court took the first step towards such a leap when it agreed to hear the case, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia Inc. v. Pauley.
A win in the case would have implications for all church interactions with the state on issues such as school choice, faith-based initiatives, and funding programs, Erik Stanley, another senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, told The Daily Signal.
“When they took this case, the justices signaled that they are willing to think carefully and deeply about this issue,” Stanley said. “We are hopeful that their consideration will result in a reversal of Locke v. Davey, and clarity for church interactions with the state.”
The Supreme Court held in Locke v. Davey that Washington state didn’t violate the “free exercise” clause of the First Amendment when it prohibited the use of a state scholarship to fund “devotional theology degrees.” It said this exclusion was not a criminal or civil sanction against religion, but the state’s choice “not to fund a distinct category of instruction.”
However, the American Civil Liberties Union sees it differently.
“State taxpayers shouldn’t be forced to subsidize religious activities and institutions,” Daniel Mach, director of the group’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, said in a statement to The Daily Signal. He said the ACLU is hopeful the high court “will affirm the state’s longstanding ability to provide its citizens with robust religious liberty safeguards.”
Roger Severino, director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation, said he views Missouri’s constitutional prohibition not as a “robust religious liberty safeguard,” but as a “relic of anti-Catholic hostility” used to discriminate against people of faith.
Denying schoolkids funding for a safer playground simply because they happen to go to a religious school is a step too far, he says.
Severino added: “The U.S. Constitution prevents state governments from committing this kind of gross discrimination and the Supreme Court now has the opportunity to remind everyone of this fact.”
The Supreme Court is expected to make a decision on the case by the end of June.