Supreme Court: Church-Owned Playground Eligible for Public Benefits
Justices ruled 7-2 that denial of the church’s eligibility for benefit program violated the U.S. Constitution’s Free Exercise Clause.
WASHINGTON — In one of the biggest religious cases of the term, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled that a church-owned playground can be eligible for a public-benefit program.
Chief Justice John Roberts, delivering the opinion of the court, wrote June 26 that “the exclusion of Trinity Lutheran,” the church at the center of the case, “from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, solely because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution all the same and cannot stand.”
The decision in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer was about “religious people being treated just like everybody else,” stated Mike Farris, president of Alliance Defending Freedom.
At issue was a playground owned by Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Missouri, and operated by the church’s preschool. To resurface the playground for safety reasons, the church had applied for a state reimbursement program that provides rubber-surfacing material made from used tires. Trinity Lutheran had ranked the fifth most qualified out of 44 applicants for the program.
The state’s natural resources department ultimately ruled the church ineligible for the program because of its religious status because the Missouri Constitution forbids taxpayer funding of churches. The Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the state.
The Supreme Court reversed that ruling and sent it back to the lower courts.
Justices Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alito and Elena Kagan joined Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion of the court that the denial of the church’s eligibility for the program violated the U.S. Constitution’s Free Exercise Clause. Justice Stephen Breyer filed an opinion concurring in Chief Justice Roberts’ judgment.
Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch joined the court’s opinion except for a footnote stating that the decision was about “discrimination based on religious identity with respect to playground resurfacing” and does not “address religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination.”
“I worry that some might mistakenly read” the footnote to apply only to “‘playground resurfacing’ cases, or only those with some association with children’s safety or health, or perhaps some other social good we find sufficiently worthy,” Gorsuch wrote.
He added that “the general principles here do not permit discrimination against religious exercise — whether on the playground or anywhere else.”
Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented from the court’s opinion.
The church had argued that the new surface would be a safety upgrade for the playground operated by its preschool and used by members of the community during non-school hours.
It was used by both church members and non-members, they insisted, and should not be ruled ineligible for a state benefit program available to other entities just because it is owned by a religious institution.
Opposing the church was the ACLU, which had argued that to make the church eligible for state benefits would be an unconstitutional violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause.
Missouri’s denial of the church, however, “goes too far” under precedents of Supreme Court decisions, Chief Justice Roberts wrote, and “violates the Free Exercise Clause.”
The Missouri law was passed during a time when many other states were passing laws barring public funding of sectarian schools, widely viewed at the time to mean Catholic schools and other religious schools that were not part of the public-school system. The laws were modeled after the federal Blaine Amendment, proposed in the 1870s and named after Maine Congressman James Blaine. His amendment was proposed, but never passed, by Congress.
In oral arguments in the case, justices also discussed the broader constitutionality of religious groups having access to other public benefits, including a Jewish synagogue requesting a security detail.
Catholic leaders applauded Monday’s ruling.
“The Supreme Court is signaling in this decision that the government must stop its growing hostility towards religion and religious institutions and that antiquated and anti-Catholic Blaine Amendments should not be used as a weapon to discriminate against people of faith,” stated Maureen Ferguson, senior policy adviser with The Catholic Association.
“For over a century, Blaine Amendments have enshrined into law discrimination against faith-based charities and schools that form an essential part of American society,” said Ashley McGuire, senior fellow with The Catholic Association. “In this case, a state Blaine Amendment was used to justify blacklisting a Christian elementary school from a playground safety program solely on religious grounds.”
“Blaine Amendments are anti-Catholic in their origin, and getting rid of them is more than a century overdue,” she added. “Today’s decision demands a more fair and inclusive approach to government programs meant to serve all people."
The decision “will have an effect” in the future, said David Cortman, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, who argued the case for the church before the court in April. “Whenever religious people, organizations, see themselves being discriminated against, this case will be the controlling precedent,” he added.
Members of Congress also weighed in on the decision. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, called it “an important ruling for religious liberty with profound significance for America’s civil society.”
Sen. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma, co-chair of the Congressional Prayer Caucus who filed an amicus brief with colleagues on behalf of Trinity Lutheran in the case, stated that “today’s decision affirms the First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion — to have more than just a belief, but to live out your faith without discrimination from the government.”
The case was ultimately between the church and the state’s natural resources department. Missouri’s attorney general recused himself in the case.
Republican Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens had already announced that, in the future, religious institutions could be eligible for benefit programs of the natural resources department. However, the court stated on Monday “that announcement does not moot this case.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in her dissent, stated that “this case is about nothing less” than the relationship “between church and state.”
“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,” she added. “Its decision slights both our precedents and our history, and its reasoning weakens this country’s long-standing commitment to a separation of church and state beneficial to both.”
In the majority opinion, Chief Justice Roberts acknowledged that “it is true the department has not criminalized the way Trinity Lutheran worships or told the church that it cannot subscribe to a certain view of the Gospel.”
“But, as the department itself acknowledges, the Free Exercise Clause protects against ‘indirect coercion or penalties on the free exercise of religion, not just outright prohibitions.’” And a church being denied participation in public benefits because of its religious character can be such an “indirect coercion” on the free exercise of religion, he continued.
“In this case, there is no dispute that Trinity Lutheran is put to the choice between being a church and receiving a government benefit. The rule is simple: No churches need apply.”
For their part, the U.S. bishops praised the ruling. Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, chairman of the U.S. bishops' Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, stated:
“Today's decision is a landmark victory for religious freedom. The Supreme Court rightly recognized that people of faith should not be discriminated against when it comes to government programs that should be made available to all. The decision also marks a step in the right direction toward limiting the effects of the pernicious Blaine Amendments that are in place in many states around the country. Blaine Amendments to state constitutions, most of which date back to the 19th century, stem from a time of intense anti-Catholic bigotry in many parts of the country. We are glad to see the Supreme Court move toward limiting these harmful provisions, which have restricted the freedom of faith-based organizations and people of faith to serve their communities.”