Supreme Court rules for church preschool in religious liberty case

Cherry blossom trees bloom on the grounds of the U.S. Supreme Court.

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled that a Missouri policy that excludes a church-run preschool from a grant program is unconstitutional.

Missouri launched an initiative in 2012 to encourage schools to use recycled tires to produce safer playground surfaces, but the program triggered a major religious liberty fight.

A preschool run by the Trinity Lutheran Church sued when it was denied a state grant to participate in the program. Its lawyers argued that the state’s action constituted religious discrimination in violation of the federal Constitution’s Free Exercise and Equal Protection Clauses.

The Court ruled 7 to 2 that the Missouri policy is unconstitutional. Liberal justices Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer joined some of the conservative justices in questioning the state about what line should be drawn when the church said it planned to use the grant money not for religious activities but to protect children on the playground.

The state defended its decision, citing the Missouri Constitution, which bars churches from receiving state funds.

At arguments, a majority of the justices seemed skeptical of the state’s position, particularly because the grants were open to all nonprofits and the funds were not directly funding a religious activity.

Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, said the organization is “disappointed” with the decision.

“We’re disappointed in today’s decision,” he said in a statement. “Religious freedom should protect unwilling taxpayers from funding church property, not force them to foot the bill. The court’s ruling, however, focuses specifically on grants for playground resurfacing, and does not give the government unlimited authority to fund religious activity.”

Timothy Tardibono, with the Family Policy Institute of Oklahoma, released the following statement:

“In a surprisingly strong 7-2 ruling, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), clearly set out that a church does not have to give up its nature as a religious institution to participate in public programs even if a public program is government-funded. 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 solely because it is a faith-based organization.”

“Oklahomans of faith should be encouraged by this ruling because it recognizes that the Constitution’s First Amendment allows faith-based institutions to fully participate in civic life and the public square. This means that communities across the state will continue to see the positive benefit of faith-based organizations loving their neighbor in a variety of ways. It also means that Oklahoma’s Blaine Amendment is in jeopardy and should be revisited.”