Missouri reverses course, makes churches eligible for some state grants

Church Shutterstock CNA Church. | Shutterstock.

Missouri has announced that it will start allowing religious groups to be eligible for certain state grants, although the decision may not affect a religious freedom case before the U.S. Supreme Court this week.

"We commend Governor Greitens for reversing a policy of discrimination against religious groups applying for neutral and widely-available grants to do important work for the state of Missouri," said Ashley McGuire, senior fellow with The Catholic Association, on Friday.

She responded to an announcement from the state's new governor, Eric Greitens, that religious groups will now be eligible for grants from the state's department of natural resources.

It is unclear whether the decision will affect the case of Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, which is scheduled for oral arguments at the Supreme Court on Wednesday. The case centers around a playground owned by a Missouri church and used by its preschool. The playground is used by both members and non-members of the church.

In order to make upgrades to the playground's surface as a safety measure, the church applied for a grant through a state program that provides materials from used tires to resurface playgrounds.

However, the playground was ruled ineligible for the state grant because the church, which runs the preschool, is a religious group. The state's constitution includes an amendment barring religious groups from receiving taxpayer funds.

"The safety of all children matters, whether they attend a religious school or a nonreligious school," Alliance Defending Freedom senior counsel David Cortman stated on Thursday. ADF is representing the church before the Court.

"The state of Missouri denied the Trinity Lutheran Child Learning Center's access to a public program that would have made their playground safer – and did so on the basis of religious status, a direct violation of the U.S. Constitution and Supreme Court precedent," Cortman said.

Opponents of Trinity Lutheran's case insist that the state's constitution bars churches from receiving taxpayer funds as a measure prohibiting the unconstitutional establishment of religion.

However, supporters of the church insist that the amendment was drafted during a time of anti-Catholicism and was meant as a measure to prevent Catholic schools from receiving the public benefits that the largely-Protestant public school system received.

Today, religious freedom advocates say the amendment is used by secularists to cut off all religious groups from state funding.

Then last week, Gov. Greitens said that churches and religious groups were now eligible for public grants from the state's department of natural resources for purposes such as improving recreational facilities and field trips.

"Before we came into office, government bureaucrats were under orders to deny grants to people of faith who wanted to do things like make community playgrounds for kids," Gov. Greitens stated, adding "that's just wrong."

"We have hundreds of outstanding religious organizations all over the state of Missouri who are doing great work on behalf of kids and families every single day. We should be encouraging that work. So, today we are changing that prejudiced policy," he continued.

The state's Catholic Conference praised the announcement.

"We applaud the Governor's move to make sure these non-sectarian DNR grants and programs are available to all children without religious discrimination," Mike Hoey, executive director of the Missouri Catholic Conference, stated.

The announcement is "an important step for the state of Missouri away from anti-religious Blaine Amendments," McGuire insisted.

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However, the statement did not officially mean that Trinity Lutheran was retroactively eligible for grants for its playground.

"Just as today's announcement from the governor states, his new directive doesn't resolve the discriminatory actions that were taken against Trinity Lutheran's preschool and the attempt to deny Trinity Lutheran its constitutionally protected freedom to participate equally in society," Cortman stated.

Oral arguments in the case are scheduled for this week, although the Supreme Court last Friday reacted to Gov. Greitens' announcement by ordering the church and the state to determine whether or not his new policy would affect Trinity Lutheran's eligibility for the playground grants.

The deadline for both parties to submit their letters to the Court is by noon on Tuesday, April 18.

"As people across the nation celebrate Holy Week and Passover, Alliance Defending Freedom looks forward to advocating for the equal treatment of all Americans of faith at the Supreme Court," Cortman said.

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