News Worms
News Worms

In Church-State Playground Brawl, Justices Lean Toward The Church

In Church-State Playground Brawl, Justices Lean Toward The Church

Thirty-nine states have state constitutional provisions that bar taxpayer funds from going to religious schools - provisions that have been a major obstacle for the school choice movement.

Only Sotomayor and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who cited the landmark 1947 Everson ruling that the U.S. Constitution's ban on federal aid to religion applies to states as well, seemed to side entirely with Missouri.

Comer, the court will decide whether the state of Missouri violated the rights of a church in Columbia, Missouri, when it denied the church funds to upgrade its preschool playground, even though the project qualified for state aid.

And, depending on how narrowly the Supreme Court rules, the outcome of the case could have implications in other parts of the country as well-particularly in the 38 states that now uphold Blaine Amendments, laws that prevent their governments from giving any financial aid to religiously-affiliated institutions.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups say the case should be over because the rule change effectively removed the controversy.

The news comes just a day before the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to begin hearing arguments in the case. The acting attorney general on this issue appointed James Layton - who had been the state's top appellate litigator under the previous attorney general and had argued the Trinity Lutheran case at the appeals court - to argue it at the US Supreme Court.

But the justices didn't appear wholly convinced during the lively hour-long argument that Missouri had violated the free exercise and equal protection clauses of the Constitution, as the church claimed.

They said the state failed to do this because the criteria used to determine which schools receive the grants and even the grants themselves have nothing to do with religion. "But religious freedom protects our right to believe and worship - or not - without the government's interference", said AU's Legal Director Richard B. Katskee.

We're confident, though, that lawmakers and voters know the difference between subsidizing religion and helping kids avoid injury when they fall on a playground.

Similar provisions to the one at issue in Missouri's constitution, often called Blaine amendments, exist in almost 40 state constitutions and have been the source of challenges to state voucher and education savings account programs. Trinity Lutheran, for instance, contends that another governor sometime in the future could change the policy back. When a state withholds a generally available benefit exclusively on religious grounds, it is like an unconstitutional "special tax" on religion, Scalia said.

The Supreme Court grappled Wednesday with whether states can legally exclude religious organizations when doling out grant funding for state programs.

Justice Breyer asked about crossing guards, since they aren't placed everywhere, and Layton simply said this case is different because it involves physical improvement to the church's property. We can be fairly confident, though, that they will have plenty of questions tomorrow, about both the constitutionality of the old policy and the governor's decision to implement a new one. This will be the first arguments he's heard in his new position as Supreme Court Justice. It is unclear how far the justices will go in setting a precedent that would give states more leeway to fund religious entities directly. Their letters to the high court came despite Gov. Eric Greitens reversing a rule last week that prevented religious organizations from receiving grant money from the Department of Natural Resources.

Mittman went on to say church versus state should continue to be enforced.

It represents a Colorado bakery's Christian owner who argues the Constitution's promise of religious freedom means he should not have to make a wedding cake for a gay couple.

Justice Sotomayor noted that for more than a century most states, like Missouri, have barred money for religious institutions.

So, that's not enough for the Supreme Court to choose not to decide this case. On the state's list of eligible recipients, the church originally scored higher than the ultimate recipient of the grants, the legal group Alliance Defending Freedom has said.

Lynn, a minister in the United Church of Christ, attended the argument Wednesday, and dismissed as hyperbole ideas like fire departments not putting out flames at churches.


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