Supreme Court Rules State Can’t Exclude Churches From Funding

by Bradley Eli, M.Div., Ma.Th.  •  •  June 26, 2017   

Justice Gorsuch: "I agree this violates the First Amendment"

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WASHINGTON ( - The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that churches have the same right as other charitable groups to receive state funding.

The case involves Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Missouri, which was denied, in 2012, access to a state-funded grant that it sought for the purpose of resurfacing a playground at one of its schools. The reason for the state's refusal was an amendment to Missouri's Constitution which reads, "No money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect or denomination of religion."

Writing on behalf of the majority in a 7–2 decision, Chief Justice Roberts concluded, "[T]he exclusion of Trinity Lutheran from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, solely because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution ... and cannot stand."

This case involves the multifaceted First Amendment with its Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause. In his opinion, Justice Roberts reiterated the Establishment Clause as follows: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." He related that both "parties agree" that this clause "does not prevent Missouri from including Trinity Lutheran" in their resurfacing program, which makes use of recycled tires.

The problem, according to Roberts, stems from the "'play in the joints' between what the Establishment Clause permits and the Free Exercise Clause compels." Citing various cases, Justice Roberts explained what this later clause entails, "The Free Exercise Clause 'protect[s] religious observers against unequal treatment' and subjects to the strictest scrutiny laws that target the religious for 'special disabilities' based on their 'religious status.'"

Missouri's law bars Trinity Lutheran from participating in a public benefits program only because it is a church.

According to legal precedent established by the High Court wrote Roberts, Missouri had violated this clause by excluding churches from receiving state funding that was otherwise available to charitable groups. "Applying that basic principle, this Court has repeatedly confirmed that denying a generally available benefit solely on account of religious identity imposes a penalty on the free exercise of religion that can be justified only by a state interest 'of the highest order,'" he said.

Justices Sonya Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg were the only two who rejected the ruling. In her dissenting opinion, Justice Sotomayor argued that the decision radically changes what she believes was the previously held relationship between church and state. "The Court today profoundly changes that relationship by holding, for the first time, that the Constitution requires the government to provide public funds directly to a church," she wrote.

Justice Neil Gorsuch joined Roberts in the majority opinion. "Missouri's law bars Trinity Lutheran from participating in a public benefits program only because it is a church," he wrote.

"I agree this violates the First Amendment, and I am pleased to join nearly all of the Court's opinion."


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