The Supreme Court of the United States issued a ruling Monday that is both unprecedented in the court’s history and game-changing in the relationship between church and state. In a 7-2 decision, the justices ruled that the state of Missouri could not deny the Trinity Lutheran Church public funding for the resurfacing of its playground. On the face of it, this ruling appears innocuous, if not trivial, but the implications, for both states’ rights and the relationship between civil government and religious entities, are enormous.
The case revolved around the church’s application for public funds to resurface its playground with a rubber matting, making it safer for the children to play. The Missouri Constitution contains a clause forbidding the state from funding religious organizations. On this basis, Trinity Lutheran was denied funds that had been made available to other entities for this very purpose.
Although the court’s majority decision seems decisive – with only Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissenting – the case exposed several unresolved concerns. Ultimately, the constitutional relationship between church and government, such as it is, is no more clearly defined than before. Even so, Monday’s ruling will likely open the way for a deluge of future legal battles, across the nation.
The two main questions, in this case, are how the majority opinion lines up with the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment and how much authority the federal government has, to effectively nullify a clause in any State’s own Constitution.
The First Amendment does not forbid all interaction between church and state. Rather, it forbids the federal government from suppressing religious freedom. It also forbids Congress from promoting, through legislation, any one religion above any other.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;
Thus, by law, all religions can be practiced, and all are equal. This must be considered when analyzing the state of Missouri’s argument. The state will not provide public money to religious entities. All religious entities, regardless of faith or denomination, are equally excluded. It seems not to contradict the spirit, or intent, of the First Amendment. The other facet to this, however, is that the state’s position violates the First Amendment; by denying the very same funding to religious entities that would be granted to non-religious entities, the state is engaging in the suppression of religion. That position is the foundation of the Supreme Court’s decision. Writing the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts stated “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.”
In this way, Roberts is concluding that Missouri was discriminating against Trinity Lutheran because, and only because, it is a religious entity. Roberts expounded on this; “[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.”
This was not a cut-and-dried opinion, even among those justices who concurred with the majority. Justice Neil Gorsuch added a brief dissent to that opinion which addressed the problem of distinguishing between “religious status and religious use.” Referring to the fact that Trinity Lutheran intended to use the funds for a secular, or non-religious, purpose, he wrote “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?” This is a subtle distinction but one that may figure prominently in future legal challenges. Particularly, the case of private religious schools fighting for public funds will revisit this question; when providing educational services, is a religious school engaging in secular activity or is it, by virtue of being a religious school, using public money to promote religion?
Writing the dissenting opinion, Justice Sotomayor expressed grave concerns about the direction in which this ruling would take the country. She argued that the court had forever changed the relationship between church and state “by holding, for the first time, that the Constitution requires the government to provide public funds directly to the church.” This will not necessarily prove to be the case in all future legal fights of this nature. As Gorsuch pointed out, there is always the question of how public funds would be used by any specific religious entity. This question will, undoubtedly, become the litmus test for deciding future cases. Sotomayor implied one important consideration, however. “[The court’s] reasoning weakens this country’s longstanding commitment to a separation of church and state beneficial to both.”
The secular nature of the United States Constitution was more about protecting religious practice from government interference than it was about protecting the civil government from religious zealotry. It is the nature of government to believe that the money it spends or grants belong to it, rather than to the people. A government does not provide any private entity with money unconditionally. Having accepted public funds, a church has given away a piece of its independence. The more the federal government, or state governments, provide public funding to churches or other religious entities, the more those churches may become vulnerable to government regulation or other conditions for receiving said funds.
By fighting for – and winning – public funding, religious entities are taking the first steps along a potentially hazardous path.
From the perspective of one who cherishes states’ rights. The Trinity Lutheran v. Comer ruling is not good news. Whatever arguments can be made, regarding the church-state relationship, this is still an example of the federal government interfering with the laws of a state. Notably, the justices declined to address this issue. The First Amendment applies to the federal government – specifically, to Congress – but does it apply equally to the states? This decision would imply that it does. If that is the case, then how does one reconcile that with the existence of numerous state laws that clearly infringe upon constitutional rights? If states are compelled to comply with the First Amendment, then why not the Second Amendment? Many states have overly-restrictive firearms laws which clearly run counter to the Second Amendment imperative that the right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. Shall those also be challenged?
Trinity Lutheran, it can be argued, has emerged with a clear and just victory, regarding its specific case. The blurring of lines between civil government and religious entities, however, does not bode well – particularly, for the latter. The further encroachment, by the federal government, upon a state’s right to autonomy also runs counter to the intent of the nation’s founders. The Missouri church will now get to renovate its playground but, in the grand scheme, the children who will play there are the only winners.
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