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Published On: Sun, Sep 10th, 2017

SCOTUS rules government cannot exclude churches, religious groups for funding, programs

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 Monday that the government cannot exclude churches and other faith-based organizations from a secular government program simply because of their religious identity.

The much-anticipated decision came in the case Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, involving a church-run preschool in Missouri. The state denied the church a partial reimbursement grant for rubberized playground surface material made from recycled tires solely because a church runs the preschool, even though the only purpose of the grant program is to improve children’s safety.

gavel judge court case ruling

photo by Okan Caliskan via Pixabay

“The Supreme Court’s decision today affirms the commonsense principle that government isn’t being neutral when it treats religious organizations worse than everyone else,” said ADF Senior Counsel David Cortman, who argued before the Supreme Court on behalf of Trinity Lutheran Church in April. “Equal treatment of a religious organization in a program that provides only secular benefits, like a partial reimbursement grant for playground surfacing, isn’t a government endorsement of religion. As the Supreme Court rightly found, unequal treatment that singles out a preschool for exclusion from such a program simply because a church runs the school is clearly unconstitutional.”

“[T]he 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…, and cannot stand,” the Supreme Court wrote in its opinion.

“Today is a momentous day for freedom,” said ADF President, CEO, and General Counsel Michael Farris. “We didn’t ask for special treatment. We asked for equal treatment for people of faith. And the court agreed that the government cannot discriminate against people of faith by treating them unequally.”

Although the state highly ranked Trinity Lutheran Child Learning Center as qualified for the program (fifth out of 44 nonprofit applicants), it denied the center’s application solely because a church runs the preschool. Children in the community also use the playground after hours and on the weekends, and more than 90 percent of the children who attend the preschool do not attend the church.

The outcome of the case was considered critical because, under the state’s logic, the government potentially could deny churches access to any nonreligious public benefit, such as fire services or water treatment.

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