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Supreme Court Rules Religious School Can Use Taxpayer Funds For Playground

Children play on the playground at the Trinity Lutheran Child Learning Center in Columbia, Mo.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that taxpayer-funded grants for playgrounds available to nonprofits under a state program could not be denied to a school run by a church.

"The consequence is, in all likelihood, a few extra scraped knees. But the 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 all the same, and cannot stand," Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority.

In her dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote, "If this separation means anything, it means that the government cannot, or at the very least need not, tax its citizens and turn that money over to houses of worship. The Court today blinds itself to the outcome this history requires and leads us instead to a place where separation of church and state is a constitutional slogan, not a constitutional commitment."

Two justices, Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas, refused to sign on to a footnote explicitly stating that the court's approval applied only to playground funding and should not be read as applying to parochial schools in general.

The court's ruling came in the case of the Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Mo., which operates a preschool and day care learning center as part of its church ministry.

In 2012, the church applied for a grant from the state of Missouri to essentially rubberize its playground surface, using old and discarded tires. It applied despite written regulations that barred state grants to religious institutions.

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources, which administers the grant program, had enough money to fund 14 of the 44 applicants. Although Trinity Lutheran would have qualified for one of the grants, the state turned it down, citing the state constitution's ban on any state aid, direct or indirect, to religious schools.

Trinity Lutheran went to court, claiming that the grant denial interfered with its free exercise of religion and unconstitutionally discriminated against the school based on religion.

Lawyers for the church school argued that the grant program was open to all not-for-profit schools, except religious ones. Thus, they said, religious schools were being treated "worse than everyone else," as David Cortman, an attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom, put it. Moreover, he said the government in this case "is not being asked to fund a religious activity. It's funding the playground where students play."

Not so, the state of Missouri countered. The Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution, in its own words, forbids only government action that prohibits the free exercise of religion; it does not require the government to subsidize churches or provide equal funding opportunities to religious and non-religious groups alike.

The state continued that position before the Supreme Court, but shortly before the case was to be argued, a new Republican governor, Eric Greitens, took office in Missouri and declared that he was changing the previous long-standing policy on aid programs to religious schools. He blamed "government bureaucrats" and said he would defend "people of faith who are too often under attack."

While Monday's decision involves a small grant program for playground resurfacing, the repercussions will undoubtedly send ripples through public and parochial school programs across the country.

The Missouri Constitution's ban on aid to religious schools is similar to provisions in another 36 states. In recent years, as the Supreme Court has become increasingly willing to lower the wall separating church and state under the federal Constitution, these state constitutions have become bigger and bigger obstacles to those like Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, an ardent advocate of so-called school-choice programs. And advocates of religious liberty have gone to court rather than seeking through the democratic process to get rid of the state constitutional provisions that bar all aid to religious schools.

To opponents and supporters of such taxpayer aid to religious schools, Monday's decision in the Trinity Lutheran case is the camel's nose in the tent.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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