Ruling defends religious institutions against discrimination in certain public benefits and funding.
In its biggest religious freedom case of the year, the US Supreme Court ruled Monday in favor of a Lutheran congregation seeking a state grant for improving its playground. New Justice Neil Gorsuch sided with the majority in the 7–2 vote.
The landmark decision in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer addresses the religious freedom principles at the core of the First Amendment and potentially paves the way for certain government funding for religious institutions (such as through voucher programs), an issue the court hasn’t ruled on since 2000.
“The express discrimination against religious exercise here is not the denial of a grant, but rather the refusal to allow the Church—solely because it is a church—to compete with secular organizations for a grant,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts, in the court’s opinion, which Justices Sonya Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented. “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.”
The case was about more than the playground resurfacing grant in question—especially since the state of Missouri already amended the program to include religious groups. Instead, the Trinity Lutheran playground dispute pitted religious freedom against the separation of church and state.
Trinity Lutheran argued that the state of Missouri was violating the free exercise clause of the First Amendment (“no law… prohibiting the free exercise of religion”) by declaring its preschool ineligible for a grant program to help cover the cost of safer playground surfaces made of recycled tires just because the school …