Supreme Court playground ruling feeds school voucher debate

US Supreme Court sides with religious institutions in major church-state decision

US Supreme Court court backs church in key religious rights case

Trinity Lutheran was rejected from a state program that reimburses non-profit organizations who purchase rubberized surface material made from tire scraps for children's playgrounds. Trinity Lutheran's application was rejected exclusively because it is a church, and the state constitution (like many other states) includes a "Blaine Amendment" that prohibits even indirect aid to churches.

"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 all the same, and can not stand", Roberts wrote.

Last year, the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission filed a brief in opposition to the lower court rulings that upheld Missouri's decision to deny the state grant to the church-based daycare.

Several justices wrote separate opinions, differing on various legal points but agreeing with the main point of the ruling. Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the decision to allow public funds to pay for projects at religious schools "discounts centuries of history and jeopardizes the government's ability to remain secular".

"We should all celebrate the fact that programs created to help students will no longer be discriminated against by the government based exclusively on religious affiliation", DeVos said after the justices ruled Monday that Missouri violated the First Amendment in denying the grant. Since the church would have otherwise qualified, the state's decision was held to violate the U.S. Constitution's prohibition on interference with the free exercise of religion. "We do not address religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination".

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The court's decision makes school-choice legislation more possible to pass in state governments. In 2012, it applied for a grant from Missouri state to rubberize the playground surface.

More than three dozen states now have such constitutional provisions that bar the use of public money for religious purposes, which have effectively prohibited the establishment of voucher programs that give families direct government subsidies to pay for tuition at private and parochial schools. "I would leave the application of the Free Exercise Clause to other kinds of public benefits for another day", he said. Chief Justice Roberts affirmed Trinity's claim in the official opinion of the court, citing similar SCOTUS decisions from the past.

The vote was 7-2, with Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg dissenting. Future cases will decide whether the case has not gone far enough to protect religious freedom or has gone so far to erode the wall of separation between church and state that it will come tumbling down to the detriment of both. However, Attorney David Cortman with conservative Christian non-profit Alliance Defending Freedom says the ruling continues to leave open the question of what needs can qualify for the grant. It instead asserts a right to participate in a government benefit program without having to disavow its religious character.

"The Department's policy expressly discriminates against otherwise eligible recipients by disqualifying them from a public benefit exclusively due to their religious character", Roberts said.

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