The 7-2 decision could have far-reaching implications: almost 40 states ban public funds going to religious institutions.
Trinity Lutheran Church, which is located in Columbia, Mo., filed suit after being denied public funds to replace its preschool playground's gravel surface with a softer, safer material. It lost at the federal district and appellate court levels, but the Supreme Court's decision in January 2016 to hear the case was seen as a positive sign. The reason? The state claimed giving the church funds would violate the state constitutional provision against providing public funding for religious organizations. For instance, could churches be considered ineligible for funding after natural disasters?
They contended the state's discrimination against a preschool was consistent with the Establishment clause, which bars Congress from establishing a religion. That ban, these advocates say, discriminates against kids who choose to attend religious schools because they can not receive state-funded tuition vouchers.
The head of a national teachers' union read the ruling differently - and downplayed its implications for schools. "The question is how many applications, or which applications", he said.
"This is not just limited to playground improvement programs", Stanley added. The high court's ruling challenges Missouri's version of the "Blaine Amendment, " which forbids the use of public dollars to support religious programs. Allowing churches and other religious groups to compete for direct government funds is bad for religion. The Supreme Court reversed that ruling and sent it back to the lower courts. One of the more satisfying decisions was in the case of Trinity Lutheran, a religious school in Missouri that was denied state funds for a playground exclusively because it's a church.
"I agree this violates the First Amendment, and I am pleased to join almost all of the Court's opinion".
The case was ultimately between the church and the state's natural resources department. Does the decision limit the application of the ruling by focusing on "playground resurfacing" in this footnote? Or did a group build the playground so it might be used to advance a religious mission? Haynes of the Newseum believes the decision opens the door to funding. Missouri argued there was nothing unconstitutional about its grant program, noting that Trinity Lutheran remained free to practice its faith however it wants despite being refused state funds.
In one sense, the ruling is narrow, said Richard Garnett, a professor at Notre Dame Law School, and Blaine Amendments aren't simply thrown out. From a school choice perspective, if a goal of sending your child to a religious school with a voucher is that he or she will learn to evangelize, precedent still stands in your way.
Justice Stephen Beyer, although he ruled in favor of the church cautioned against concluding this means churches can expect other benefits from the states.
DeVos says the ruling makes clear that "programs created to help students will no longer be discriminated against by the government based exclusively on religious affiliation". "Today's decision means discrimination of this kind will never be permitted again in the state of Missouri, or anywhere". He defended the rights of religious institutions to get their fair share of public benefits.
"This case is about nothing less than the relationship between religious institutions and the civil government - that is, between church and state", Sotomayor wrote. Five of those seven justices clarified that the decision applies only to playground resurfacing. Constitutional questions are decided by this Court, not the parties' concessions. Lankford joined House and Senate colleagues in April of previous year to submit a friend of the court brief in the case in support of Trinity Lutheran Church.
The decision includes a footnote clarifying that "the case involves express discrimination based on religious identity with respect to playground resurfacing".
The decision ensures that religious institutions will not be automatically disqualified from various competitions for government aid, she said.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer called it a "significant victory for religious liberty and an affirmation of the First Amendment right of all Americans" during a briefing he held off-camera.