US Supreme Court rules churches can seek public funds for non-religious needs

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA (AP) — Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes is praising a U.S. Supreme Court decision that found the state of Missouri violated the First Amendment by denying public money to a church for a playground solely because of its religious status.

“The Supreme Court’s ruling makes it clear that States cannot force churches to choose between their ecclesiastical missions and obtaining generally available public benefits,” Reyes said in a statement issued Tuesday.

“Churches need not forswear their religious identities to receive generally available public benefits, such as fire or police protection, access to public utilities — or funds for safe playground surfaces. I applaud the Court’s ruling on this important Free Exercise Clause issue.”

The Supreme Court ruled that churches have the same right as other charitable groups to seek state money for new playground surfaces and other non-religious needs.

The justices ruled 7-2 in favor of Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Missouri. The church sought a grant to put a soft surface on its preschool playground, but was denied any money even though its application was ranked fifth out of 44 submissions.

Chief Justice John Roberts said for the court that it “is odious to our Constitution” to exclude the church from the grant program. Roberts said that’s true even though the consequences are only “a few extra scraped knees.”

Supporters of school vouchers say they hope the ruling lays the groundwork for a future decision on whether states can let parents choose to send their children to religious schools through publicly funded programs.

Michael Bindas, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice, says the principle of “religious neutrality” applies “whether the government is enabling schools to resurface their playgrounds or empowering parents to direct their children’s education.”

Civil liberties groups called the ruling a blow to the principle of church-state separation.

The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, says it “threatens to open the door to more taxpayer support for religion.”

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos says the ruling makes clear that “programs designed to help students will no longer be discriminated against by the government based solely on religious affiliation.”

DeVos is a strong proponent of school voucher programs, which use public money to help low-income students attend private schools, including religious ones. Some critics argue using public money for religious school tuition is a violation of the Constitution’s separation of church and state.

The Education Department budget proposal includes more than $1 billion to expand school choice, including $250 million for a nationwide voucher program.

The decision, with the majority opinion authored by Chief Justice John Roberts and joined by Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Samuel Anthony Alito Jr., and Elena Kagan, can be found here.

Written by the Associated Press with additional comment provided by the office of Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes.

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Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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