Supreme Court playground ruling feeds school voucher debate

The US Supreme Court has ruled in favour of a Missouri church seeking state funding in a case that tests the bounds of the separation between church and state.

Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the court's majority, said "the exclusion of Trinity Lutheran from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, exclusively because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution all the same, and can not stand". In the end, the state of Missouri refused to give the church the grant money, citing a state constitutional provision prohibiting public money from going to religious organizations and houses of worship. But McGinnis said the state can put safeguards in place to prevent discrimination on religious grounds.

Only Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg dissented. Maintaining the separation between church and state has been a hallmark of American democracy since our country was founded. "The opinion went as far as to say it is "odious to our Constitution" to exclude a church-run preschool and eliminate it from a public grant program exclusively because it is a faith-based organization". From a school choice perspective, if a goal of sending your child to a religious school with a voucher is that he or she will learn to evangelize, precedent still stands in your way. The court could act on that case as soon as Tuesday. Its lawyers argued that the state's action constituted religious discrimination in violation of the federal Constitution's Free Exercise and Equal Protection Clauses. In April, we noted that the issue was whether Missouri can discriminate against religious institutions in public aid programs.

But it was Andrew Seidel, a Civil rights and constitutional attorney for the Freedom from Religion Foundation, that noting the "terrible" decision in a scathing comment on Facebook.

"This ruling reaffirms that the government can not discriminate against individuals or organizations simply because they or their members hold religious beliefs", Spicer added.

The dispute pitted two provisions of the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment against each other: the guarantee of the free exercise of religion and the Establishment Clause, which requires the separation of church and state.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, "There is no question that Trinity Lutheran was denied a grant simply because of what it is, a church". Trinity Lutheran Church, which runs a preschool in the town of Columbia, was one of 44 applicants for funding in 2012.

"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", said David Cortman, senior counsel at the Alliance Defending Freedom conservative Christian legal group who argued the case.

The Columbia, Missouri, church had sought the grant under a state program that reimburses nonprofit organizations that install playground surfaces made from recycled tires.

The justices ultimately agreed that Trinity Lutheran was discriminated against due to their identity as a church.

At the center of the debate was a church located in Missouri (Trinity Lutheran) that operates a preschool and daycare center with a playground open to students when school is in session, and open to the public when school is out. The ruling may also have implications for future policy issues regarding funding for private, religious charter schools and other matters.

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