The state of Missouri went too far in refusing to resurface a religiously affiliated preschool's playground, the Supreme Court ruled Monday, in a case that some legal observers said didn't live up to its hype in addressing a church's access to public funding.
"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 … and cannot stand," wrote Chief Justice John Roberts, who authored the majority opinion.
Roberts was joined in full by three justices and in part by two others. Justice Stephen Breyer wrote a concurring opinion, meaning that, overall, seven of the nine Supreme Court justices sided with Trinity Lutheran Church.
Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer centered on a religiously affiliated preschool's application for state-funded tire shreds, which soften a playground's surface and prevent injuries. Trinity Lutheran ranked fifth out of 44 applicants to the grant program, but the state had a policy of excluding churches.
"What the court did here is classify (Missouri's scrap tire grant) as a general program that's available to anybody and from which the church was singled out simply because it's a church," said Frederick Gedicks, a law professor at Brigham Young University. "The court says that violates the free exercise clause" of the Constitution.
The high-profile case was closely watched by people on both sides of contemporary debates over church-state separation, who said the ruling could be a major turning point in efforts to expand school voucher programs.
In reality, the majority opinion was relatively narrow and upheld the status quo, drawing on previous funding-related rulings to explain that states can provide money to religious groups so long as it's not going to be used for religious purposes, Gedicks said.
The court says that "states have a compelling reason to ensure they don't fund indisputably religious activities like ministerial training, but they don't have a compelling reason to refuse to buy things like ground-up tires," he said.
A footnote in the majority opinion explained that the ruling does not "address the religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination."
"It looks an awful lot like the case is limited to its facts," said Robert Tuttle, a law and religious studies professor at George Washington University. The majority opinion has little to say about "government restrictions on faith groups using money for something more directly related to the exercise of faith."
This clarification was absent from some of the more liberal reactions to the ruling. For example, the Center for Inquiry, a pro-secular nonprofit, described it as a blow to legal experts' longstanding interpretation of the Constitution.
"The Supreme Court has detonated a massive breach in the wall of separation between church and state," said Nicholas Little, the center's legal director. "In fact the justices have laid the groundwork for additional confusion and conflict."
Similarly, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, a religious group that supports strict church-state separation and filed a brief in support of the state of Missouri, said the ruling further complicates religious freedom law.
"While claiming to stand up for churches, the Court ignores their distinct nature as centers of religious exercise," it said in a statement. "The decision does not create a free exercise right to government funding of religion, but it unnecessarily blurs the line that ensures religion flourishes on its own."
Alternatively, individuals and groups who work to expand the rights of religious organizations saw the ruling as a meaningful affirmation of religious liberty.
"The Supreme Court's decision today affirms that commonsense principle and the larger truth that government isn't being neutral when it treats religious organizations worse than everyone else," said David Cortman, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, the law firm that represented Trinity Lutheran Church.
While a significant majority of the justices sided with Trinity Lutheran, the concurring and dissenting opinions illustrate varied viewpoints on how best to balance the Constitution's free exercise and establishment clauses.
Dissenting justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Ginsburg said Missouri officials were right to create a clear barrier between religious groups and state grant money. They said the majority opinion will lead to more confusion about the appropriate way to separate church and state.
"Today's decision discounts centuries of history and jeopardizes the government's ability to remain secular," Sotomayor wrote.
Although they largely concurred with Roberts, justices Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas argued that the majority opinion could have gone further to ensure that faith groups won't be punished for living out their religious beliefs. They took issue with the footnote in the majority opinion clarifying that this ruling won't set a precedent for future religious discrimination cases.
"I worry that some might mistakenly read it to suggest that only 'playground resurfacing' cases, or only those with some association with children's safety or health, or perhaps some other social good we find sufficiently worthy, are governed by the legal rules recounted in and faithfully applied by the court's opinion," Gorsuch wrote. "The general principles here do not permit discrimination against religious exercise — whether on the playground or anywhere else."
Through his writing in this case and others this term, Gorsuch appears to live up to his conservative reputation, signaling he could play a crucial role in future religious freedom cases. Also on Monday, the Supreme Court announced it will hear a case addressing whether small business owners can refuse to provide wedding-related services to gay or lesbian couples for religious reasons.
The bottom line on Trinity Lutheran is that it didn't live up to its billing as an opportunity for the Supreme Court to change when and how religious organizations can access public money, Tuttle said.
"As a matter of federal establishment clause law, this decision is important but very limited," he said. "It doesn't answer the big questions in the way that Thomas and Gorsuch wanted it to."