U.S. Supreme Court justices on Wednesday appeared sympathetic to a church that sued Missouri for denying it state taxpayer funds for a playground project in a closely watched religious rights case involving public money going to religious entities.
Both conservative and liberal members of the nine-justice court indicated that Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Missouri should be allowed to apply for the state grant program that helps nonprofit groups buy rubber playground surfaces made from recycled tires.
The case, which tests the limits of religious freedom under the U.S. Constitution, is considered one of the most important to come before the court during its current term.
Missouri’s Republican governor, Eric Greitens, last Thursday reversed the state policy that banned religious entities from applying for the grant money, saying it was wrong for “government bureaucrats” to deny grants to “people of faith who wanted to do things like make community playgrounds for kids.”
But both the state and the church urged the justices to decide the case anyway because of the important issues at play and because the governor’s action was not irreversible.
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.
Missouri’s constitution bars “any church, sect or denomination of religion” from receiving state money, language that goes further than the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment separation of church and state requirement. Three-quarters of the U.S. states have provisions similar to Missouri’s barring funding for religious entities.
Trinity Lutheran, whose legal effort was spearheaded by the Alliance Defending Freedom conservative Christian legal activist group, argued that Missouri’s policy violates the U.S. Constitution’s guarantees of free exercise of religion and equal protection under the law.
The church runs a preschool and daycare center.
Missouri said there is nothing unconstitutional about its grant program, noting that Trinity Lutheran remains free to practice any aspect of its faith however it wishes despite being denied state funds.
Trinity Lutheran 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.