June 27, 2017
In a major ruling in favor of religious freedom, the Supreme Court struck down a provision in the Missouri State Constitution prohibiting churches and other religious organizations from receiving any public funds. In Trinity Church v. Comer, the Supreme Court found that the state’s “Blaine Amendment” violates the First Amendment. The Court’s 7-2 ruling (Justices Sotomayor and Ginsberg dissented), continues a recent trend in support of the First Amendment protections for religious liberty and free speech. You can read the opinion here.
Missouri funds a grant to help charities pay to replace playground equipment using recycled tires. Trinity Lutheran Church, which runs a day care program, applied for a grant. Despite being otherwise eligible for the grant, the state refused to allow the church to participate citing the state constitution’s prohibition:
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.
Similar provisions exist in approximately thirty states. Named after 19th Century Senator from Maine, James G. Blaine, the Amendments were aimed at preventing public funding of parochial schools.
In issuing its ruling, the Supreme Court distinguished a previous case in which a state prohibition against providing a scholarship to a student who wished to study to become a minister was upheld (Locke v. Davey). “Davey was not denied a scholarship because of who he was; he was denied a scholarship because of what he proposed to do—use the funds to prepare for the ministry. Here there is no question that Trinity Lutheran was denied a grant simply because of what it is—a church.”
“The Free Exercise Clause ‘protect[s] religious observers against unequal treatment’ and subjects to the strictest scrutiny laws that target the religious for ‘special disabilities’ based on their ‘religious status.’” This ruling makes clear that blanket prohibition against any religious based organization from qualifying for a state benefit will not pass constitutional muster.