On Monday, June 26th, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 7-2 opinion in favor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Missouri that could open the door to more educational services and safety programs being made available by the state of Missouri to children attending religious schools. For years, state agencies have commonly refused to include children attending religious schools in grant programs on the grounds that the Missouri Constitution forbids aid to religious institutions.
Trinity Lutheran alleged this practice was discriminatory under the free exercise clause of the First Amendment of the U.S Constitution, arguing that state constitutional provisions could not be used as an excuse to discriminate based on religion.
At issue was a decision made by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources to deny Trinity Lutheran Church a grant providing crushed tires through a recycled tire program for use on the surface of Trinity’s pre-school playground. Despite ranking fifth out of forty-four applicants, Trinity’s application for a grant was denied on the basis that Missouri’s Constitution prohibits state funding going directly to a Church.
In a brief 15-page opinion authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Court ruled that Missouri’s denial of the grant to Trinity solely because it is a church, “is odious to our Constitution… and cannot stand.” Judge Roberts said that the department’s policy “expressly discriminates against otherwise eligible recipients by disqualifying them from a public benefit solely because of their religious character.”
The policy in question, Judge Roberts ruled, violates the free exercise clause of the First Amendment, because it requires Trinity to choose between being a church and receiving a government benefit. “The rule is simple: No churches need apply,” Roberts explained.
The Supreme Court’s decision is an important first step in ensuring the fair participation of children attending Catholic and other religious schools in state funded programs. Many states already offer bus transportation, textbooks and similar services of a secular nature to religious school children, but Missouri has always claimed it could not because of the state constitution’s Blaine Amendment.
The Court’s decision, however, is only a first step. Services will only be offered to religious school children if the Missouri General Assembly passes legislation authorizing such assistance. The Court’s decision does not require state legislators to fund such services; lawmakers could simply continue to fund services only for public school children.
Fortunately, even before the decision this week, the Missouri General Assembly was beginning to look more favorably toward including religious school children in state funded programs. In 2016, legislators agreed to expand the A+ scholarship program to students attending Catholic and other religiously affiliated high schools.
The next challenge will be to convince lawmakers to take the A+ model and apply it to other state services and programs. The Trinity Lutheran decision puts advocates of religious school children on firmer legal footing to advance justice for all children, but challenges remain, such as persuading lawmakers that the state of Missouri can afford to expand services beyond those who attend public schools.