Travel ban, church-state case await action by Supreme Court

In a decision released Monday morning in the case of Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, the highest court in the nation concluded that Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia should not be barred from a state program meant to help fix their daycare playground, reversing a lower court decision.

The justices also ruled that churches have the same right as other charitable groups to seek state money for new playground surfaces and other non-religious needs.

"We should all celebrate the fact that programs created to help students will no longer be discriminated against by the government based exclusively on religious affiliation", DeVos said after the justices ruled Monday that Missouri violated the First Amendment in denying the grant.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the decision "profoundly changes" the country's commitment to separation of church and state and the principle that governments can not provide taxpayer money to religious institutions.

One of the footnotes to the ruling may have prevented it from being used as a precedent for related case, but did not have the support from the majority of the justices to make it "the opinion of the court".

The court's ruling came in the case of the Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Mo., which operates a preschool and day care learning center as part of its church ministry.

"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", wrote Justice John Glover Roberts Jr.

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While Monday's decision involves a small grant program for playground resurfacing, the repercussions will undoubtedly send ripples through public and parochial school programs across the country. But opponents say the ruling is far from an endorsement of the use of public money for religious schools.

During the course of the litigation, Missouri changed its rules regarding its aid program, with Governor Eric Greitens expanding the program to include church-run playgrounds.

Some religious groups cheered the decision, which was closely watched for the effect it may have on school voucher programs.

The policy was based on a provision of the Missouri constitution that prohibits public money from going to religious institutions.

Michael Bindas, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice, said the principle of "religious neutrality" applies "whether the government is enabling schools to resurface their playgrounds or empowering parents to direct their children's education".

Supporters of the church had warned that a negative ruling could give states justification to deny funds for other services, ranging from police and fire protection to soup kitchens and battered women's shelters.


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