The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Trinity Lutheran Church in their case against the state of Missouri yesterday, allowing them to use taxpayer money towards the playground they maintain as part of their preschool and daycare center.
In 2012, the Trinity Lutheran Church applied for a grant from the state of Missouri to rubberize their playground surface. They applied despite the written regulations that excluded religious institutions from state grants.
The Missouri Department of Natural Resources, the administrator of the grant program, turned down the church. Trinity Lutheran went to court over the matter, claiming their free exercise of religion was being discriminated against.
In the original court case, the lawyers for Trinity Lutheran tried to argue that religious schools were being treated “worse than everyone else” by being denied access to government funds for non-profit schools. The lawyers for the state of Missouri countered that the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution forbids the government from prohibiting free exercise of religion, but it does not require the government to subsidize religious organizations.
The matter would eventually be fought all the way up to the Supreme Court. But shortly before the case went before the Supreme Court, a new Republican governor, Eric Greitens, took office in Missouri. Greitans changed the policy on aid programs for religious schools, saying that he would defend “people of faith who are too often under attack” from “government bureaucrats”. Then yesterday, with the judges split 7-2, the court ruled in favor of Trinity Lutheran.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor (along with Ruth Bader Ginsburg) dissented from the majority ruling of the court. Sotomayor called the court’s decision “radical” and warned that it would profoundly change the relationship between church and state by requiring the government to give public funds directly to a church.
Nicholas Little, Legal Director of the Center for Inquiry, said in a statement, “The Supreme Court has detonated a massive breach in the wall of separation between church and state.” And David Silverman, president of American Atheists, likewise declared, “By striking down Missouri’s no-aid clause, the court has opened Pandora’s Box. This case was about more than a playground. It was about whether unaccountable religious groups are entitled to receive taxpayer funding despite their complete lack of financial transparency. For the first time, the court has decided they are.”
I agree with Silverman and believe the court’s decision puts the U.S. on a dangerous path. The fact that Trinity Lutheran Church gets to rubberize their playground is trivial in the long run, but going forward it will be far easier for churches and religious groups to take advantage of more government programs meant for non-religious entities. Think of state programs meant for public schools for a moment. Our schools are already terribly under-funded. Now these programs are also going to have religious schools added to the already long list of schools needing funds. And they will need to shortchange public schools more than they already are in order to meet the demands of churches, especially if they want to avoid litigation.
I covered a story back in February about how Catholic schools were already taking advantage of the government voucher program to keep their doors open. Even before this current administration took over Catholic schools were using taxpayer money to keep themselves afloat. With radical Christian Betsy DeVos running the Department of Education and Episcopalian Neil Gorsuch in the Supreme Court, we are likely going to see things get a lot worse before they get better. Neil Gorsuch, in fact, felt that the court's decision yesterday did not go far enough for religious groups. And again, I am mostly focusing just on schools at the moment. Government programs exist for many other types of non-profits and public organizations. We could end up seeing churches across the country leech money from all sorts of taxpayer-funded programs.
Pandora’s Box, indeed.