In a 7-2 ruling, the Supreme Court ruled in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer that churches and other religious entities cannot be entirely denied public money even in states where constitutions explicitly ban such funding. The Monday ruling in the major religious rights case found in favor of Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Missouri, which had been denied access to a state grant program that provides public funds to nonprofit groups to buy rubber playground surfaces made from recycled tires.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority in an opinion that found that "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" and "cannot stand." The constitution of the state of Missouri goes further than the US Constitution in that it forbids "any church, sect or denomination of religion" or clergy member from receiving state funds.
Three-quarters of the rest of the states have provisions resembling Missouri's.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor -- an Obama nominee -- wrote a dissent that said that the Supreme Court was sweeping away legal precedents that allow for limits on state funding of churches. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who Republicans have asked to recuse herself in the upcoming case involving President Trump’s travel ban executive order, also dissented. Sotomayor wrote:
"This case is about nothing less than the relationship between religious institutions and the civil government - that is between church and state. The court today profoundly changes that relationship by holding for the first time that the Constitution requires the government to provide public funds directly to a church."
Victory for Trump administration
The ruling is expected to assist organizations affiliated with religious bodies to receive public funds for certain limited purposes, such as health, safety, and education.
In a related case is expected to be settled soon. A challenge to a 2015 court decision invalidating a Colorado school voucher program is pending before the Supreme Court and waiting for the outcome of Trinity Lutheran. President Trump's education secretary, Betsy DeVos, is a prominent supporter of "school choice" plans.
Chief Justice Roberts said in a footnote in the ruling, "This case involves express discrimination based on religious identity with respect to playground resurfacing. We do not address religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination."
White House spokesman Sean Spicer hailed the ruling as a "significant victory for religious liberty and an affirmation of the First Amendment rights of all Americans."
"This ruling reaffirms that the government cannot discriminate against individuals or organizations simply because they or their members hold religious beliefs," Spicer added.
The dispute involved two parts of the the First Amendment against each other: a) the guarantee of the free exercise of religion, and b) the Establishment Clause, which requires the separation of church and state. Missouri refused to allow Trinity Lutheran “solely because it is a church” and thus violated the religious exercise clause. Trinity Lutheran provides a preschool and daycare center that is open to all, and wanted a safe playground surface for the children under its care. In a statement, attorney David Cortman -- senior counsel at the Alliance Defending Freedom who argued the case -- said "The Supreme Court's decision today affirms the commonsense principle that government isn't being neutral when it treats religious organizations worse than everyone else."