U.S. Supreme Court rules that some taxpayer funded benefits are available to religious institutions

June 27, 2017 | By MERIEM L. HUBBARD

Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a win for the Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia.  The question in the case against the State of Missouri, was whether the State violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment by refusing to allow the Church to participate in a program offering rubber surfacing material to nonprofit organizations. The Church applied for the grant so that it could replace the rock surface of a playground at its daycare facility with a safer surface made from recycled tires.  Its request was denied for the sole reason that it is a church.

The decision was authored by Chief Justice Roberts, who focused on the fact that Trinity Lutheran was forced to make a choice between participating in a public sponsored benefit program or remaining a religious institution.  Roberts likened the law applied to Trinity Lutheran to a Tennessee law that disqualified ministers from serving as delegates to the State’s constitutional convention. (See McDainiel v. Paty, highlighted in PLF’s amicus brief in support of Trinity Lutheran.)  In both cases, generally available benefits were denied solely on the basis of religious identity. And, that unequal treatment imposed a penalty on the free exercise of religion.

Justices Thomas and Gorsuch filed separate concurrences, based primarily on a footnote (footnote 3) that may be read to limit this case to its facts.  Gorsuch, joined by Thomas, opined that “the general principles here do not permit discrimination against religious exercise–whether on the playground or anywhere else.”  Justice Beyer on the other hand, concurred in the judgment, but suggested that the decision should not be read to imply the same result as to other types of public benefits.  Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg dissented, arguing that government cannot provide public funds directly to a church.

The split decision in Trinity Lutheran, as well as footnote 3 of the opinion, make for an interesting followup case.  That next case has been sitting on the the Supreme Court’s docket for more than a year, and this morning Doyle v. Taxpayers for Public Education was remanded to the Colorado Supreme Court for a decision based on Trinity Lutheran. Doyle seeks a ruling that would allow the use of tax dollars to support a Choice Scholarship Program for children to attend religious institutions. The question presented is as follows:  “Does a generally-available and religiously neutral student aid program violate the Religion Clause or the Equal Protection Clause … simply because the program affords students the choice of attending religious schools?”

Doyle is a particularly important case for those who support parental choice about educational opportunities for their children.  PLF filed an amicus brief in the case asking the U.S. Supreme Court to accept review, which it did and will likely do again.