SCOTUS Hears MO Religious Discrimination Case

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20 April, 2017

A challenge to a 2015 court decision invalidating a Colorado voucher programme is pending before the justices, awaiting the Trinity Lutheran case's outcome. - The Supreme Court on Wednesday heard arguments about whether a state benefit program could exclude churches due to their religious status.

The court must decide whether Missouri is entitled to reject a church grant to use recycled tires to resurface a playground.

Citing discrimination, the church sued the state, and although it lost in the lower courts, it is now looking for a SCOTUS ruling that would ensure that schools run by churches can not be excluded from government programs providing assistance to non-profit organizations. The church sued and lost in the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, and then appealed to the nation's highest court. The state argued in its brief to the court that Trinity Lutheran congregants are still free to practice their religion; they just won't be able to do it with state funding.

It's no wonder-the justices had a lot of time to think about this case, since they granted review in January 2016 and appeared to hold off in hearing the case until a ninth justice was confirmed.

Newly elected Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, a Republican, recently announced that his administration would reverse course and allow religious organizations to apply for and be eligible for such state grants.

Trinity Lutheran sued, noting its grant request was for a non-religious objective. Gorsuch asked. "And second, how do we tell the difference between the two, if that's the line we're going to draw?"

The state didn't get many converts.

What does this have to do with Colorado?

The Trinity Lutheran case is one of the most anticipated of the current court term.

Former Missouri Supreme Court Justice Mike Wolff believes it does. While a judge for a USA appeals court in Colorado, Gorsuch argued that religious freedom protected the store chain Hobby Lobby from the Affordable Care Act's requirement that it would have to offer its employees free birth control coverage.

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Aside from the religious liberty element, the case is being watched for the implications of how the Supreme Court will rule with Gorsuch on the bench. But this argument is incomplete: religious organizations benefit from all sorts of tax breaks, and the programs they run directly - even ones which don't seem obviously "religious" - are often categorized as part of their "ministry" in order to take advantage of those.

If the high court rules in favor of the church, Michael Bindas of the Institute for Justice, which supports the church, says it could result in a major shift in the law on churches and public funding. As the founders recognized, separation of church and state is an indispensable requirement of individual liberty, protecting religious institutions from potential interference from the government, and vice-versa.

The state ranked Trinity fifth on the list of 44 applicants, but refused it permission to participate.

Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the most outspoken in backing Missouri's ban, noting the difficulty states could face determining whether funds going to a religious entity are being used for a secular purposes.

James R. Layton, a lawyer for the state, said on the other hand that the clause in Missouri's constitution that prohibits the granting of taxpayer monies to any church, sect, or religion, simply means the state should not be "forced" to release money for Trinity Lutheran Church. The court Friday asked the church and the state to tell it whether the governor's announcement affects the case.

"The church now has the ability to receive taxpayer dollars", Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the ACLU of Missouri, said. Three-quarters of the USA states have provisions similar to Missouri's barring funding for religious entities.

The justices wondered whether church schools could seek public money for computers and textbooks. These "no-aid" clauses safeguard religious freedom by ensuring that citizens have freedom of conscience to choose which religions (if any) they will voluntarily support.

Chief Justice John Roberts, meanwhile, wanted to know if a state program that gives school groups tours of the state capitol could discriminate against religious schools.

ADF said it is defending the long-held First Amendment principle that the government can not exclude religious organizations from government programs that provide purely nonreligious benefits.

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