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DeVos weighs in on Supreme Court church decision

28 June 2017

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) today expressed disappointment with the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, which held that Missouri's decision to exclude houses of worship, including Trinity Lutheran, from a program that provided direct grants to pay for playground resurfacing materials was unconstitutional discrimination against religion.

The case arose from an application the church submitted in 2012 to take part in Missouri's scrap tire grant program, which reimburses the cost of installing a rubberized playground surface made from recycled tires.

Churches and other religious entities can not be flatly denied public money even in states where constitutions explicitly ban such funding, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Monday in a major religious rights case that narrows the separation of church and state. Today, in an opinion authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Court ruled that this violates the federal Constitution's Free Exercise Clause by denying Trinity Lutheran an otherwise available public benefit because of its religious status.

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Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch wrote separately to say they would not have limited the ruling to playground resurfacing or related issues that involve children's safety or health.

McGinnis, who supports the Supreme Court's majority opinion, said the court didn't allow requiring the church to relinquish a constitutional right in order to receive government aid. "Its decision slights both our precedents and our history, and its reasoning weakens this country's longstanding commitment to a separation of church and state beneficial to both", she concluded. In April, we noted that the issue was whether Missouri can discriminate against religious institutions in public aid programs.

Three quarters of the U.S. states have provisions similar to Missouri's barring funding for religious entities. In his opinion, Justice Roberts reiterated the Establishment Clause as follows: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof".

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And Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who dissented, are far from convinced that the majority's footnote does enough to stop those broader applications. "The facts here are no different than the State sending inmates of a state prison to a church-affiliated hospital for medical care". Rather than "claiming any entitlement to a subsidy", Trinity Lutheran "instead asserts a right to participate in a government benefit program without having to disavow its religious character". Religious liberty wins are great and important.

"The Department's policy expressly discriminates against otherwise eligible recipients by disqualifying them from a public benefit exclusively due to their religious character", Roberts said.

"These laws, which came to be called Blaine amendments, started in Missouri and they ended in Missouri as well with this Trinity Lutheran Church case", he states. However, Attorney David Cortman with conservative Christian non-profit Alliance Defending Freedom says the ruling continues to leave open the question of what needs can qualify for the grant.

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DeVos weighs in on Supreme Court church decision