July 20, 2017
by John Kaempf

In June 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a case called “Trinity Lutheran Church,” held that churches cannot be excluded from neutral state programs for public benefit, and churches may directly receive state money from these programs.

On June 26, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in a case entitled Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer. By a 7–2 margin, with two liberal justices (Breyer and Kagan) joining the Court’s four conservative justices, including Justice Neil Gorsuch, who joined the Court this year, and “swing” Justice Kennedy, the Court held that when a state (Missouri in this case) creates a neutral program for public benefit — in this case, a program that uses scrap tires to provide rubberized safety flooring for playgrounds — the state cannot exclude a church from that program.

This is required even if it means state benefits flow directly to a church.

Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the majority, stated:

“The Missouri Department of Natural Resources has not subjected anyone to chains or torture on account of religion,” and “the result of the State’s policy is nothing so dramatic as the denial of political office. The consequence is, in all likelihood, a few extra scraped knees. 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.”

The Court’s ruling in Trinity Lutheran is important for two reasons.

First, it is another precedent that stands for the proposition that once a state creates a neutral program — one designed neither to advance nor to inhibit religious practice — it cannot exclude citizens or institutions from that program merely because they are religious. Under these precedents, parents may send their children to religious schools with publicly funded vouchers, and many types of religious organizations may participate in public–private partnerships to serve our country’s poorest citizens.

Second, seven of the nine justices agreed with the result in the case.

This means that the principle of religious nondiscrimination in public programs has broad support in the U.S. Supreme Court.

There are concerns, however. Justice Sotomayor wrote a dissent that Justice Ginsburg joined claiming that the Court’s decision “profoundly changes” the relationship between church and state “by holding, for the first time, that the Constitution requires the government to provide public funds directly to a church.” However, the Court would have sanctioned anti-religious discrimination had it ruled the other way. Seven of the Court’s nine justices took a hard look at a government program that expressly discriminated on the basis of religion, and they rejected it.

The majority holding in Trinity Lutheran, along with Justice Gorsuch joining the Court this year, bodes well for the future of religious liberty.