US top court urged to decide church case despite state policy flip
U.S. Supreme Court is seen in Washington, U.S., October 3, 2016. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

Missouri officials and a church embroiled in a closely watched dispute over public money going to religious entities urged the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday to decide the case despite a pivotal policy change by the state's Republican governor.

Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian legal group representing Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Missouri, and the state attorney general's office wrote letters to the justices saying the one-hour argument set for Wednesday should proceed.

The case, which tests the limits of religious freedom, is one of the most important before the court in its current term.

The justices asked the parties in the case their views on whether it should proceed after Governor Eric Greitens last Thursday reversed policy and said churches can seek state funds for playgrounds to be resurfaced even though Missouri's constitution bars "any church, sect or denomination of religion" from receiving state taxpayer money.

In a separate letter, the American Civil Liberties Union and the advocacy group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, which backed the state's ban, asked the justices to drop the case, saying it is now moot following Greitens' decision to let churches apply for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources funds.

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.

Trinity Lutheran, which runs a preschool and daycare center, said Missouri unlawfully excluded it from the grant program that allows nonprofit groups to buy rubber playground surfaces, and 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.

"Here, though the state agency is no longer denying benefits to organizations solely because of their religious affiliation, there is no clearly effective barrier that would prevent the agency from reinstating that policy in the future," John Sauer of the Missouri attorney general's office wrote.

Alliance Defending Freedom lawyer David Cortman wrote that the governor's policy change was "late in the day" and could someday be reversed.

"Governor Greiten's eleventh-hour policy change does not moot this case and this court should proceed to a decision on the merits," Cortman said.

The ACLU and Americans United wrote that the governor's announcement means that the church has gotten exactly what it wanted because it can now apply for the grant. The groups urged the court against ruling on an important constitutional issue in a case in which the two parties are in agreement.

"Given this dramatic change ... the state is not in a position to present in this court a vigorous defense of its past policy," the groups said.

Three-quarters of the U.S. states have similar provisions as the Missouri constitution. The U.S. Constitution's First Amendment calls for a separation of church and state and guarantees the free exercise of religion.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)