In yet another small blow to keeping public funds away from the hands of churches, the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of taxpayer-funded grants being accessible to schools run by religious institutions as of Monday.
The court case began in 2012 when the Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Mo., applied for a state grant for the sake of resurfacing their playground area. The church operates a day care and preschool for local residents, stating it to be a part of their local ministering efforts. Of forty four qualifying applicants, the church reportedly would have received the funding if the grant committee had not cited a standing ban on providing public funding to religious schools.
David Cortman acted as the standing attorney for the Trinity Lutheran Church, stating religious schools were being treated “worse than everyone else,” as all not-for-profit schools without religious affiliation were free to apply for those same grants. He later went on to claim the money was for a place children play, and the state was “not being asked to fund a religious activity.” In return, the state of Missouri cited the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution. The government is not required to offer the same opportunities to both religious and non-religious foundations, it argued, and that providing the money would classify as funding religious activity.
Republican governor Eric Greitens – already under fire for cutting over $68 million in funding from Missouri’s budget meant for colleges and universities – stated shortly before the case went to the Supreme Court that he would be overturning long-standing state laws regarding funding religious institutions, claiming “people of faith who are too often under attack,” as if failing to resurface a playground were some sort of persecution. Despite 36 other states having similar bans, he claimed “government bureaucrats” for denying this aid.
Justice Sonya Sotomayor made a rare oral dissent from the bench, stating this decision would cause major changes in the relationship between governments and religious institutions “by holding, for the first time, that the Constitution requires the government to provide public funds directly to a church.” She decried the decision as “radical,” as well. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg joined her in dissent; Meanwhile, Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch stated the decision didn’t go far enough, and that denying religious institutions funding without justification “of the highest order” to be in breach of the Constitution.
Despite strong constitutional precedent, the Supreme Court has taken steps to weaken defenses against taxpayer funds going to churches in the last few decades. By taking another step down the long slippery slope to complacency, they threaten to confuse the freedom of choosing a religion with the freedom from choosing not to support a religion and endanger future court cases of a similar nature.