Justices signal support for church in closely watched case

While the Bill of Rights prohibits the federal government from establishing a state-sponsored religion, the actual phrase "separation between church and state" is nowhere to be found in the U.S. Constitution. "So the people who go to the church and the church themselves, if they buy new tires for the van or for their own cars, they pitch into this fund". Other properties of non-profits and secular institutions are eligible for the program.

Trinity Lutheran Church Learning Center in Columbia, Missouri, applied for a state tire chip grant in 2012 in hopes of making its playground safer for students and neighborhood kids who use it.

ADF attorneys said they were happy with the oral argument, and some other analysts have suggested that the school could win over some of more moderate justices on the argument that it is unconstitutional to restrict religious institutions from accessing certain public safety or health benefits.

Similar provisions to the one at issue in Missouri's constitution, often called Blaine amendments, exist in almost 40 state constitutions and have been the source of challenges to state voucher and education savings account programs.

The church sued but lost in the lower courts.

Similar amendments and statutes were sweeping the nation at the time.

Here's the rub. Last week, Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens issued a directive that allowed "religious organizations to apply for state Department of Natural Resources grants", and in turn the DNR is to consider such applications without prejudice.

"A change in administration could readily lead to a resumption of the state's former policy of excluding churches from the Scrap Tire Program or the governor could simply change his mind due to political pressure", wrote David Cortman, senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom.

"Today these laws are used to discriminate against all religious groups", Smith says. "The state of Missouri has not only reversed its policy but decided not to follow the Missouri Constitution".

Attorney James R. Layton, lawyer for Missouri, responds to question from Justice Gorsuch in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Missouri Dept. on Natural Resources on April 19, 2017.

"And the church scored among the top five and would have been given the grant", Cortman said.

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor sounded most skeptical of the church's position.

"We all want the best for our kids", says Lori Willadson.

The First Amendment was never meant to hinder churches from speaking to culture, morality, government, or applying for grants that benefit public safety. It also could buttress the case for using taxpayer money for vouchers to help pay for children to attend religious schools rather than public schools in "school choice" programs advocated by conservatives.

The state's rationale for allowing the case to go forward closely resembles the church's, right down to the cases that it cites.

Finally, two groups that have filed friend-of-the-court briefs in support of the state's refusal to provide the grant filed a letter Tuesday that argued the case is, in fact, moot. When a state withholds a generally available benefit exclusively on religious grounds, it is like an unconstitutional "special tax" on religion, Scalia said.

But they sometimes confront a barrier written into their state constitution. She says a ruling against Missouri "could open a lot of opportunities for parents to send their children to the school of their choice". The playground is used by both members and non-members of the church.

Justice Alito asked him if a Jewish synagogue or a mosque, threatened by vandals, asked for a public security detail, would that be a violation of the state's constitution. Layton said they would be prohibited.

A total of 39 states have restrictions that either, like the Missouri provision at issue, ban state support for churches or forbid taxing their citizens in order to aid churches. But what about a case where a church school prioritized among Lutherans, then other Protestants, then perhaps Jews, she asked. He will be on the bench on Wednesday when the justices hear the Trinity Lutheran case, one of the most important of their current term.

After the arguments, Cortman was optimistic about the reception from the justices.

Williams didn't seem to think the church's claims of religious discrimination had any legal standing.