Supreme Court case on playground touches on separation of church and state

With Trump pick aboard, top US court tackles religious rights

Religious liberty had a good morning at the Supreme Court on Wednesday as the Justices heard arguments in a case about whether Missouri could bar a church from a playground-resurfacing program merely because it's a church.

During Cortman's questioning, he insisted that funding for a house of worship does not raise concerns requiring church-state protection if the government funds are directed at secular rather than religious activities, Justice Sotomayor raised the key issue of how hard it is to separate religious from secular activities when it comes to a house of worship.

The justices seemed to settle on that point, questioning the state's decision to exclude the church from a grant program when there are federal programs in place that provide funding that could benefit religious institutions including a Department of Homeland Security program to improve security near synagogues or mosques and a program to fix buildings damaged by the bombing at the federal building in Oklahoma City.

Inside the Court on Wednesday, the justices pressed Cortman on whether the playground would be used for religious purposes and if that effectively constituted state funding of religious ministry.

Justices Stephen Breyer and Kagan followed up, asking him if emergency responses by fire departments or police officers to the school, or public health programs, would be allowed under the state's constitution. "You're depriving one set of actors from being able to compete in the same way everybody else can compete, due to their religious identification".

By state mandate in Missouri, children are entitled to more state protection of their safety if their parents enroll them in secular schools.

"This church-state divide, it's a fraught issue".

Justice Kagan - we have a strong constitutional principle that says when we have a program for non-religious things like a playground resurfacing, you're not disentitled from that program because you're a religious institution.

A crowd, including handfuls of children, gathered outside the court and those favoring the church position held aloft balloons that spelled out "play fair".

Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the most outspoken in backing Missouri's ban, noting the difficulty states could face determining whether funds going to a religious entity are being used for a secular purposes.

"I think Justice Gorsuch wanted to make the point that religious freedom here demanded equal protection for churches and non-churches, religious institutions and non-religious institutions", Weber explained.

Sotomayor said that Missouri was not interfering with the church.

The amendments date back to the 19th century and are named for Rep. James Blaine of ME, who tried unsuccessfully in 1875 to have the U.S. Constitution prohibit the use of public funds for "sectarian" schools. She has made clear that expanding school choice is her top priority, and has referred to traditional public schools as a "dead end" for students.

"All we're talking about is a safer surface on the playground for when kids play", he said.

"Almost 200 years ago, the people of the state of Missouri, adopting language that finds its origin in the founding fathers in Virginia and elsewhere, decided that we were not going to tax people in order to give money to churches", Layton stated at a news conference after the hearing. The National Conference of State Legislatures says that as of January, 17 states have scholarship tax-credit programs, with some of the states having more than one such program.

Justice Breyer - if providing police and fire protection for the church school is to protect health and safety, how does the state deny money for the same place for helping children not fall on the playground, cut their knees, get tetanus, break a leg, et cetera? - The Supreme Court on Wednesday heard arguments about whether a state benefit program could exclude churches due to their religious status.

This dichotomy bothered Gorsuch, who asked, "How is it that discrimination on the basis of religious exercise is better in selective government programs than general programs?"

JUSTICE KAGAN: ... You know, usually when we see these funding cases, it comes in a different context. He also pointed out later that "the line is moving".

The state's new governor, Eric Greitens (R), recently announced that religious groups will be eligible for grant programs from the natural resources department in the future, although Trinity Lutheran might not be retroactively eligible for its playground grant.

HOLT: Pete Williams at the Supreme Court, thank you. With the new twist, the Missouri attorney general's office recused itself and asked the former state solicitor general to defend the state's position. But once it sets up the program to include all not-for-profits and all not-for-profit preschools, it sets out 16 different criteria, neutral criteria, that everyone has to comply with.

The case grows out of 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.

At issue is whether a playground owned by a church and operated by its preschool can be denied access to a state benefit program simply because of the church's religious status. Federal funds pass through battered women shelters and soup kitchens run by churches. They're just saying we don't want to be involved with the church. These are not hypothetical considerations but the key elements of Trinity v. Comer.

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