U.S. Supreme Court justices on Wednesday appeared sympathetic to a church that sued Missouri for denying it state taxpayer funds for a playground project in a closely watched religious rights case involving public money going to religious entities.
Conservative and liberal justices on the nine-member court indicated that Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Missouri should be allowed to apply for the state grant program that helps nonprofit groups buy rubber playground surfaces made from recycled tires. The church runs a preschool and daycare center.
The case, which tests the limits of religious freedom under the U.S. Constitution, is considered one of the most important to come before the court during its current term.
The church, whose legal effort was spearheaded by the Alliance Defending Freedom conservative Christian activist group, could be headed for a lopsided win, with liberals Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer joining their conservative colleagues in hinting at their support.
“It seems to me … this is a clear burden on a constitutional right,” said Kagan in reference to the state prohibition.
Trinity Lutheran has argued that Missouri’s policy violates the U.S. Constitution’s guarantees of free exercise of religion and equal protection under the law.
Breyer questioned whether denying churches access to the playground grant money would be akin to refusing to provide police or fire services.
“What’s the difference?” Breyer said.
Conservative Justice Samuel Alito noted that there are several federal grant programs open to religious entities, including one that provides money to enhance security at buildings where there is a risk of terrorist attack.
Synagogues, mosques and religious schools are among those that have received funding under the program, according to a brief filed by the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America in support of the church’s position.
Alito asked Missouri’s lawyer, James Layton, if religious entities would be barred from applying if Missouri had a similar program. Layton said they would be prohibited.
Missouri’s constitution bars “any church, sect or denomination of religion” from receiving state money, language that goes further than the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment separation of church and state requirement. Three-quarters of the U.S. states have provisions similar to Missouri’s barring funding for religious entities.
A victory at the Supreme Court for Trinity Lutheran could help religious organizations nationwide win public dollars for certain purposes, such as health and safety. It also could buttress the case for using taxpayer money for vouchers to help pay for children to attend religious schools rather than public schools in “school choice” programs advocated by conservatives.
The court’s newest justice, President Donald Trump’s appointee Neil Gorsuch, is known for an expansive view of religious rights.
Gorsuch signaled support for the church by asking Layton why it is acceptable for Missouri to discriminate against religious entities in some instances, such as with the playground program, but not in other circumstances, including the provision of safety and health services.
Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the most outspoken in backing Missouri’s ban, referencing the difficulty states could face in separating out the secular and religious functions of religiously affiliated groups when distributing funds.
Missouri’s Republican governor, Eric Greitens, last Thursday reversed the state policy that banned religious entities from applying for the grant money, saying it was wrong for “government bureaucrats” to deny grants to “people of faith who wanted to do things like make community playgrounds for kids.”
Both the state and the church urged the justices to decide the case anyway because of the important issues at play and because the governor’s action was not irreversible. The issue was discussed only briefly during the oral argument, suggesting the justices are eager to decide the case on the merits.
Missouri has said there is nothing unconstitutional about its grant program, noting that Trinity Lutheran remains free to practice any aspect of its faith however it wishes despite being denied state funds.
Trinity Lutheran sued in federal court in 2012. The St. Louis-based 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2015 upheld a trial court’s dismissal of the suit, and the church appealed to the Supreme Court.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)