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Supreme Court Rules Trinity Lutheran Was Discriminated Against by Missouri
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Trinity Lutheran playground

Summary: In what may seem a surprising twist, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a church seeking grant money to resurface their playground.

The Supreme Court ruled in what many will view as a controversial ruling today regarding religious institutions. The court ruled with a seven-justice majority that churches cannot be denied public funds just because they are a religious organization.


The case was in regards to the state of Missouri and the Trinity Lutheran Church. The church had applied for a state grant in 2012 to resurface their playground. When they applied for the grant, they were considered a strong candidate for the program. 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.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, “There is no question that Trinity Lutheran was denied a grant simply because of what it is, a church.” The issue was whether this ruling conflicted with the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. More specifically, the concern was that Missouri was violating the free-exercise clause when the prohibited Trinity Lutheran from being able to participate in a secular, neutral aid program.

Roberts continued, “In this case, there is no dispute that Trinity Lutheran is put to the choice between being a church and receiving a government benefit. The rule is simple: No churches need apply.” The issue may not seem like a big deal since it is just for a playground but as Roberts explained, the stakes of the decision were high. He related Missouri’s actions to those in places like Maryland where 200-year-old efforts were in place to prevent people from running for office because of their religious preference. Roberts wrote, “The result of the State’s policy is nothing so dramatic as the denial of political office but the exclusion of Trinity Lutheran from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, solely because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution all the same, and cannot stand.”

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The justices ultimately agreed that Trinity Lutheran was discriminated against because of their identity as a church. Joining Roberts were Justices Anthony Kennedy, Sameul Alito and Elena Kagan in the decision to include a caveat limiting the scope of their ruling. They wanted to make sure it was about who was getting the money not how the money was issued. “This case involved express discrimination based on religious identity with respect to playground resurfacing. We do not address religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination.”

Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch are skeptical of this note but still voted in line with the majority. Gorsuch wrote, “The Court leaves open the possibility a useful distinction might be drawn between laws that discriminate on the basis of religious status and religious use. Respectfully, I harbor doubts about the stability of such a line. Does a religious man say grace before dinner? Or does a man begin his meal in a religious manner? Is it a religious group that built the playground? Or did a group build the playground so it might be used to advance a religious mission?”

The doors this ruling opens may be numerous. The justices ruled specifically regarding Missouri but other states have similar versions of the constitutional provision the Missouri used to deny money to a church. The ruling may also have implications for future policy issues regarding funding for private, religious charter schools and other matters.

Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer dissented.

Do you think the ruling was right? Tell us in the comments below.

To learn more about recent Supreme Court rulings, read these articles:




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