U.S. Supreme Court Hears Big Missouri Church-State Case

School playground

The empty playground at Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Missouri, which is at the center of a major case on the separation of church and state that was argued Wednesday in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

© The Associated Press

Supreme Court justices signaled Wednesday that they will decide an important case on the separation of church and state, although the state of Missouri has changed its policy that drove the issue to the high court in the first place.

And if they do, their decision — in the case of a Missouri church that was denied state money to resurface its day care center’s playground — could have implications for how states choose to fund programs with religious connections, including school vouchers.

Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, a Republican, announced last week that he was reversing the policy that said churches couldn't participate in the funding.

But lawyers for both sides told the court the governor’s decision could lead to litigation that would once again bring the question before the court. And justices had plenty of questions for both sides as they sought to find a line between improper state funding of religious institutions and discrimination against religious groups by not doing so.

"This church-state divide, it's a fraught issue. It's a hard issue," Associate Justice Elena Kagan said.

The case stems from a lawsuit filed by Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Missouri, after it lost out on a grant for its playground in 2012 despite being ranked fifth out of 44 applicants.

The state rejected the church’s application, citing a provision of the state constitution that explicitly prohibits using public money to aid a religious institution. More than 30 other states have similar so-called Blaine Amendments as part of their constitutions.

In arguing for the church, lawyer David Cortman told the court that the church had met the 16 criteria the state used to judge applications and did so better than many other applicants. As a result, he said, it should not be excluded from the grant.

“Neutral criteria means there is no endorsement of religion,” Cortman said.

But Kagan and Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor questioned how that reconciles with Missouri’s constitution, which Sotomayor said reflects a history of not wanting to spend public dollars on houses of worship.

James Layton, who argued the case for Missouri, said the nature of grant, which reimburses recipients, means money would go directly to a church, and the state did not want to be in the position of “making visible improvements to church property.”

But Associate Justices Samuel Alito and Stephen Breyer pointed to state funding of services like fire and police protection or public health programs that often do not exclude churches.

Although many states have Blaine Amendments, many also fund or rely on programs with some sort of religious ties, including school voucher programs, shelters for the homeless and domestic abuse victims, child care centers, and foster care programs.

Groups that submitted friend-of-the-court briefs on behalf of the church, including many states, worry a ruling in favor of Missouri could jeopardize such programs. Lower courts, however, have largely upheld Missouri’s position.

A decision from the court in the case is expected by late June.

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