The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Missouri will be allowed to get state funding to update a playground for safety reasons. The state of Missouri denied the funding claiming that religious institutions can’t be funded by the state.
According to CNN’s legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, a footnote appears in the majority decision that says the case is only about playgrounds. The church argued that the playground equipment was not for the church but for a secular daycare program.
“This case involves express discrimination based on religious identity with respect to playground resurfacing. We do not address religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination,” footnote number three reads.
“It’s the court saying ‘let’s take this case one at a time. We’re not deciding all state tax money can go to religious institutions,'” Toobin said. His example was that if a church is burning down the fire department, a government institution, still puts the fire out. However, he agreed that this will set a precedent that encourages other religious institutions to get funding for things and sue when they are denied – but it doesn’t mean they’ll also win.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor was so incensed about the decision that she read her dissent opinion from the bench out loud. She explained that the decision has profoundly changed the relationship between church and state.
Rachel Cohen at the American Prospect noted that the case is going to bring up a lot for the “school choice” debate. If this church can purchase playground equipment with state funds, theoretically the same should apply to religious private schools being able to get state funding.
Advocates of religious freedom are already celebrating a victory, claiming that this is only the beginning for the religious community.
“Spent entire semester teaching Free Exercise seminar at Chapman Law re Trinity Lutheran,” tweeted Hugh Hewitt. “Bravo to SCOTUS. Should have been 9-0 not 7-2.”
The Americans United for Separation of Church and State were concerned going into the case, arguing that Trinity Lutheran v. Comer could be a “serious threat to religious freedom.”
Many activists agree. “Trinity Lutheran decision is just one step closer to tax dollars funding faith-based schools and home schooling. Now who are the ‘Takers?’ tweeted one activist.
Others warned it might be foreshadowing of the anti-LGBT discrimination the court said it would take up in October.
“With SCOTUS’ warped view of religious freedom in Trinity Lutheran and travel ban cases, I’m not optimistic about the bakery case,” tweeted legal policy intern Amanda L. Scott.
“I call churches getting public money when there isn’t enough to go to PUBLIC schools pretty vengeful,” Elie Mystal, “Above the Law” editor wrote. “It’s like the revenge of the Conservatives up in there today.”
But it was Andrew Seidel, a civil rights and constitutional attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, that noting the “terrible” decision in a scathing comment on Facebook.
“I’ll simply say that it has been a bright line rule since America’s founding that the government will not fund religion or the free exercise of religion,” he said. “Today, the Supreme Court destroyed that rule, claiming that a government funding program that is not open to churches ‘violates the Free Exercise Clause.’ This turns the steadfast rule on its head, admitting that government funds that flow to churches ultimately facilitate religious worship. Never in our history has the government been able to fund religious worship, until now. As Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg wrote in their dissent, this decision ‘profoundly changes that relationship by holding, for the first time, that the Constitution requires the government to provide public funds directly to a church.'”
Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, agreed.
“This ruling undermines the bedrock principle that no American should be forced to support a religion against his or her will. The religious freedom protections enshrined in state constitutions are worth more than resurfacing a playground,” he said in a statement. “Taxpayer-funded religion is bad for churches, communities and citizens. Americans United will continue to fight to buttress the church-state wall because that’s the only thing that can ensure true religious freedom for everyone.”