The Supreme Court of the United States today ruled as unconstitutional a previous decision by the State of Missouri. The earlier decision had excluded from state funding opportunities a daycare operated by a church.
The case, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. (Trinity) v. Comer, Director, Missouri Department of Natural Resources (Missouri), centered around an application that Trinity had submitted in 2012. The application was for its pre-school, the Learning Center, to take part in Missouri’s Scrap Tire Program. This program, set up to “promote the use of recycled scrap tires for playground surface materials” provides grant funding for “public school districts, private schools, park districts, nonprofit day care centers, other nonprofit entities and governmental organizations other than state agencies.” The overall goals of the program include getting tires out of landfills and providing increased protection to children by making the playground surfaces less apt to cause injury when there is a fall.
The Learning Center is open to all preschoolers. Only 10 percent of its students are members of Trinity Lutheran. The playground is open to the public evenings, weekends, and periods when the school is not in session.
When Trinity submitted its application to the Scrap Tire Program back in 2012, it was one of 44 applications received that year. Part of the award process included a ranking of the applications in the order their perceived worthiness for the program. That year, Trinity’s application received a ranking of 5th out of the 44. Ultimately, Trinity was denied its application because of its church designation. A Missouri statute was cited, which reads in part, “no money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect, or denomination of religion.”
After its application was denied in 2012, Trinity decided to file a lawsuit appealing the decision. Its main argument was that the Missouri statute used to deny the application was a violation of the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Trinity lost that case. After making its way through the appeal process, the case landed in the U.S. Supreme Court.
As part of the arguments discussed during the Supreme Court proceeding, where tempers sometimes flared, the issue of public safety was a large factor. The Missouri Scrap Tire Program provides safety to playgrounds by providing a replacement of asphalt and gravel playgrounds with safer rubber surfacing. Should a church be penalized and excluded from such a program merely because it is a religious organization? Does this potentially create other public safety issues for religious organizations? Isn’t public safety a right of all? These were all important questions that were debated.
Another issue at hand was whether the Missouri statute would take precedence over the 1st and 14th Amendments to the Constitution. Since the wording of the statute specifically indicates an exclusion of religious organizations from receiving funds, a ruling for the statute would have indicated a higher legal ranking for the state statute. Clearly, the Supreme Court decision did not go that route.
While today’s decision was important to the issue at hand, it has wide-ranging implications. There are more than 30 states that have similar statutes. The Trinity decision may serve to invalidate those statutes, in whole or in part.
Another issue that could be impacted by today’s decision are school voucher programs and school choice, in general. If the states are not able to discriminate against religious organizations in this grant program, it may be that they cannot limit schools sponsored by religious organizations from being part of school voucher programs.
Today’s decision, the first landmark decision for newly-appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch, is important. It will result in changes being made to state statutes and possibly to school voucher programs. It is a win for Trinity, whose supporters say it was not looking for special treatment, “just equal treatment.”
[Featured Image by J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo]