Published: Thu, April 20, 2017
U.S. | By Jeffery Vega

Justices express sympathy with Missouri church at Supreme Court hearing

Justices express sympathy with Missouri church at Supreme Court hearing

If Trinity Lutheran gets its way, it will help religious organizations all over the United States to obtain public dollars ostensibly for purposes like safety and health.

At one point in the arguments, Kagan said outright that the state's program created a "burden on a constitutional right" - a decision that would make it very hard for the state to show its exclusion of the church from the program is constitutional.

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. "And I would have thought that that's a pretty strong principle in our constitutional law".

Liberal and conservative justices alike seemed troubled by Missouri's decision to exclude the church from a grant program that pays for playground surfaces made of recycled tires. "Before we came into office, government bureaucrats were under orders to deny grants to people of faith who wanted to do things like make community playgrounds for kids". A synagogue or a mosque under actual physical threat couldn't traditionally receive state aid available to every other kind of nonprofit.

But he seemed to face an uphill battle in defending the exclusion of church groups from a program with only a secular goal - making playgrounds safer - and for which Trinity would have been otherwise approved.

Adding to the intrigue is the long delay between when the Supreme Court agreed to hear Trinity Lutheran's appeal, a month before Justice Antonin Scalia died in February 2016, and the argument.

When Justice Samuel Alito brought up the state amendments, he asked if they were based on "anti-Catholic bigotry?"

Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union have argued that the amendment is a protection against the unconstitutional government establishment of religion, although the Eighth Circuit said in its ruling that Trinity Lutheran being reimbursed by the state would not be a violation of the Establishment Clause.

The court doesn't appear ready to scuttle the case - even after Missouri Governor Eric Greitens announced last week that he was changing the policy that said churches couldn't participate in the program.

Trinity Lutheran is suing on First Amendment grounds. The Court has upheld indirect grants such as vouchers, where parents rather than the state decide whether to spend taxpayer funds on a religious or a secular school.

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Oral arguments were held today in what is perhaps the most high-profile case remaining to be argued this term: Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer. The church runs a preschool and daycare centre.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had the toughest questions for the church. Playground time, for a child, is about play.

"They met the criteria, in fact, the state ranked them as one of the higher applications", says Dr. Kevin Pybas, a professor at Missouri State University and Church vs.

The Supreme Court in Locke v. Davey drew a "narrow distinction", he said, as that case focused on taxpayer funding of education of religious ministers.

"This church is not going to close its religious practices or its doors because its playground doesn't have these tires". If Missouri's prohibition was taken further, Breyer said, it could refuse to provide police and fire protection to churches, he said.

At question is Article 1, Section 7 of our state Constitution.

Indeed, the case wasn't scheduled for argument until after President Donald Trump nominated Gorsuch for the seat. Layton said it would, according to a traditional reading of the constitution. "No one is taking the playground away from you".

To put it plainly, Missouri took the position that it had the right to create programs that have nothing at all to do with religion but then withhold the benefits of those programs from religious institutions exclusively because they are religious.

There is a procedural wrinkle - that developed on the eve of arguments - that could give the justices an off-ramp to deciding the case. "Discrimination on the basis of status of religion-we know that's happened in this case, right?" The Founders well understood the danger of allowing the government to become entangled with with religion.

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