Supreme Court: Could This Ruling Have an Impact on Vouchers?

Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer- Decision given on June 26, 2017

Trinity Lutheran Church Child Learning Center is a daycare center and preschool in the state of Missouri.  It operates under the “auspices” of the Trinity Lutheran Church and it is located on the church’s property.

In 2012, the Learning Center wanted to replace a part of its playground’s surface with rubber instead of gravel.  The state of Missouri runs a Scrap Tire Program which reimburses qualifying nonprofit organizations for installing playground surfaces that are made of recycled tires (this cuts down on the number of tires in landfills, etc.)

The problem in this case is that Missouri has a section of its constitution that does not allow for public money to be given to religious organizations or to be given for religious purposes.

Article 1, Section 7 of Missouri’s constitution states:

That no money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect or denomination of religion, or in aid of any priest, preacher, minister or teacher thereof, as such; and that no preference shall be given to nor any discrimination made against any church, sect or creed of religion, or any form of religious faith or worship.

There are similar passages in about 35, or more, state constitutions across the United States and they are there to help protect the idea of the separation between church and state.

In 2012, the Trinity Lutheran Church Child Learning Center applied for a grant to resurface its playground, but Missouri’s State Department of Natural Resources denied the Learning Center on the basis of this clause in Missouri’s constitution.

The Learning Center would have received funding under this program because it ranked 5th out of the 44 applicants, but it did not receive the grant specifically because it was achurch.

At issue was whether or the denial of public funds to the Trinity Lutheran Church Child Learning Center constituted a violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution which states, 

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

The Supreme Court said that in this case:

“…that such a policy (of denying funds for the resurfacing of a playground to a church) imposes a penalty on the free exercise of religion…”

The Supreme Court further said that, while Trinity Lutheran is obviously free to continue operating as a church, “that freedom comes at the cost of automatic and absolute exclusion from the benefits of a public program for which the Center is otherwise fully qualified.”  “And when the State conditions a benefit in this way,…the State has punished the free exercise of religion:…”

The Supreme Court also stated that,

“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.”

The Court ruled that this policy was in violation of the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause.

So why might this ruling have an impact on funding for school vouchers?

The type of clause that Missouri has in its constitution (which prevents public funds from going to churches or religious institutions) is present in at least 35, or more, other state constitutions. 

The existence of these clauses in state constitutions has been a basis for challenging the spread of school voucher programs in several states.

The matter is far from settled.

According to an organization called, EdChoice, 14 states and the District of Columbia operate voucher programs. 

Public school advocates argue that taking public-tax-payer funds and giving it to religious (or private) organizations is a perversion of public money.

This new ruling by the Supreme Court throws into question the issue of public funds being used by religious organizations.

 

Copyright, Red and Black Ink, LLC, 2017.

References:

Denniston, Lyle.  “Constitution Check: Are the states’ “Blaine Amendments” on shaky ground?”. National Constitution Center. 1-19-2016.  https://constitutioncenter.org/blog/constitution-check-are-the-states-blaine-amendments-on-shaky-ground

EdChoice.  “Fast Facts.”  Accessed June 2107.  https://www.edchoice.org/resource-hub/fast-facts/

State of Missouri, State Department, Missouri State Constitution.  Accessed June 2017.  http://www.sos.mo.gov/CMSImages/Publications/MissouriConstitution_05.13.2015.pdf

Strauss, Valerie.  “Will the Supreme Court’s Trinity decision lead to the spread of school voucher programs?.”  Washington Post.  June 26, 2017.  Accessed June 2017.  https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2017/06/26/will-the-supreme-courts-trinity-decision-lead-to-the-spread-of-school-voucher-programs/?utm_term=.08e31e548aaa

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES, No. 15–577.  TRINITY LUTHERAN CHURCH OF COLUMBIA, INC., PETITIONER v. CAROL S. COMER, DIRECTOR, MISSOURI DEPARTMENT OF NATURAL RESOURCES, June 26, 2017.  Accessed June 2017. https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/16pdf/15-577_khlp.pdf

Danita Smith