US justices sympathize with church in key religious rights case

The church maintains its exclusion from a state program that provides money for ground-up tires that are used to cushion school playgrounds is discriminatory and violates religious freedom under the U.S. Constitution.

Kagan pointed out that the selective program was offered to nonprofits. In such a case, she said, the state's interests "have to rise to an extremely high level". While the free exercise clause requires that the state not interfere with the church's activities, it does not require state funding, he said. As Justice Kagan put it, the church-state divide is a "fraught issue" in which "states have their own very longstanding law" and "nobody is completely sure they have it right". Even though Missouri is one of 39 states across the country that now have restrictions on the state support of churches, last week, Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, spoke out against the restriction. "That's why churches are, and should be, given special treatment". She then asked if the playground surface reimbursement was an establishment of religion if play time at the preschool began with prayer, or if religious ministries took place on the playground.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor echoed this point when she said that "we seem to be confusing money with religious practice".

"There is much history showing about the anti-Catholic bigotry that's behind this specific provision" of the Missouri constitution, Cortman said.

The justices wondered whether church schools could seek public money for computers and textbooks. Ginsburg asked whether that precedent was "passé".

Missouri's office of Attorney General has recused itself from a major case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

But whether the court will issue an expansive ruling on church-state issues or a narrow one exclusively aimed at the grant program is uncertain. The department, which funds 14 grants, denied Trinity Lutheran's application because the state constitution prohibits state funds from going "directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect or denomination of religion".

That prospect worries groups of public-school teachers and others who oppose vouchers and other forms of public aid for private schooling.

At issue is a landmark case out of Columbia, Mo., in which Trinity Lutheran Church applied for a state grant to receive tire scraps for its preschool playground in 2012.

Justice Sotomayor pressed Cortman to explain how the church's free exercise of religion was being unconstitutionally violated, as it would not close its doors just because it had not received a reimbursement for the playground surface.

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The district court's ruling was based in part on a 2004 Supreme Court decision in Locke v. Davey, in which the state of Washington was permitted to deny scholarship funding to a student of "devotional theology". He only asked a couple brief questions of the state's lawyer near the end of arguments.

"As long as you're using the money for playground services, you're not disentitled from that program because you're a religious institution doing religious things", Kagan said.

"They met the criteria, in fact, the state ranked them as one of the higher applications", says Dr. Kevin Pybas, a professor at Missouri State University and Church vs.

It was also set to be an early blockbuster case for newly appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch, a conservative who was recently confirmed after being nominated by GOP President Donald Trump.

"We stand with Trinity Lutheran", said Will Estrada, director of federal relations for the association.

Religious freedom expert Gregory Lipper believes that a ruling in favor of the church could produce a slippery slope. The church, he added later, admits it "uses the preschool to bring the Gospel to non-members".

The case has been a longtime coming to the Supreme Court which agreed to hear the case more than a year ago, a month before the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.

The constitutions in at least 37 states forbid sending any tax money to churches, church schools or religious organizations.

The Supreme Court should dismiss Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer. They were joined by advocates for religious rights and, on the other side, proponents of strict separation of church and state. Wednesday's argument date was finally set February 17, shortly afterGorsuch's nomination.

Meanwhile, Missouri Governor Eric Greitens actually reversed the law last week, and said that the state was wrong to deny such funding to religious organizations.

  • Sidney Guerrero