In a closely watched religious liberties case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that the state of Missouri wrongly denied a church funds for a school playground.
Chief Justice John Roberts said for the court that the state violated the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment by denying a public benefit to an otherwise eligible recipient exclusively on account of its religious status.
The Supreme Court ruling in the Missouri case further buttresses citizens' protection against religious discrimination.
It also said the case indicated discrimination against religious exercise not just in "the denial of a grant, but rather the refusal to allow the church - exclusively because it is a church - to compete with secular organizations for a grant".
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The two dissenting votes came from Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor.
The outcome may be only "a few extra scraped knees", said Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., but denying the grant reflects an unconstitutional discrimination based on religion, he said.
In a 7-2 ruling, the court held in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer that states can not prohibit churches from receiving otherwise generally available benefits based purely on their being a religious institution.
Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Mo., wanted to participate in a state program that reimburses the cost of rubberizing the surface of playgrounds. "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". "We do not address religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination", which may limit the scope of the ruling.
In a weird footnote that likely highlights brewing philosophical fights behind the scenes, the court even went out of its way to say the case was just about "playground resurfacing".
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The Supreme Court rightly recognized that people of faith should not be discriminated against when it comes to government programs that should be made available to all.
The Constitution previously barred public funds from being used "in aid of" any private or parochial school.
At issue was whether Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia should have been eligible to receive federal funds to refurbish its playground. In addition, and signaling some underlying tensions, Thomas and Gorsuch did not join one footnote of Roberts's opinion for the court. University of Minnesota Law Professor Jill Hasday says unlike Supreme Court opinions, which are well written and argued on both sides, and literally ran out into the public for all to read. the decisions about which cases are heard are made behind closed doors and stay there.
The funds to the school has been denied due to Missouri's "Blaine Amendment", named for late 19th century ME congressman James Blaine.
And while many conservative religious groups see this as a victory, just as many constitutionalists question what the court's decision will lead to next.
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