The Supreme Court reversed that ruling and sent it back to the lower courts.
Justices Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alito, and Elena Kagan joined Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion of the Court that the denial of the church’s eligibility for the program violated the free exercise clause. Justice Stephen Breyer filed an opinion concurring in Chief Justice Roberts' judgement.
Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch joined the Court’s opinion except for a footnote stating that the decision was about “discrimination based on religious identity with respect to playground resurfacing,” and does not “address religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination.”
“I worry that some might mistakenly read” the footnote to apply only to “‘playground resurfacing’ cases, or only those with some association with children’s safety or health, or perhaps some other social good we find sufficiently worthy,” Gorsuch wrote.
He added that “the general principles here do not permit discrimination against religious exercise—whether on the playground or anywhere else.”
Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented from the Court’s opinion.
The Church had argued that the new surface would be a safety upgrade for the playground operated by its preschool and used by members of the community during non-school hours.
It was used by both church members and non-members, they insisted, and should not be ruled ineligible for a state benefit program available to other entities just because it is owned by a religious institution.
Opposing the church was the ACLU, which had argued that to make the church eligible for state benefits would be an unconstitutional violation of the establishment clause.
Missouri’s denial of the church, however, “goes too far” under precedents of Supreme Court decisions, Chief Justice Roberts wrote, and “violates the Free Exercise Clause.”
The Missouri law was passed during a time when many other states were passing laws barring public funding of sectarian schools, widely viewed at the time to mean Catholic schools and other religious schools that were not part of the public school system. The laws were modeled after the federal Blaine Amendment, proposed in the 1870s and named after Maine Congressman James Blaine. His amendment was proposed, but never passed by Congress.
In oral arguments in the case, justices also discussed the broader constitutionality of religious groups having access to other public benefits, including a Jewish synagogue requesting a security detail.
(Story cotinues below)
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Catholic leaders applauded Monday’s ruling.
“The Supreme Court is signaling in this decision that the government must stop its growing hostility towards religion and religious institutions, and that antiquated and anti-Catholic Blaine Amendments should not be used as a weapon to discriminate against people of faith,” Maureen Ferguson, senior policy advisor with The Catholic Association, stated.
“For over a century, Blaine Amendments have enshrined into law discrimination against faith-based charities and schools that form an essential part of American society,” Ashley McGuire, senior fellow with The Catholic Association, stated. “In this case, a state Blaine Amendment was used to justify blacklisting a Christian elementary school from a playground safety program solely on religious grounds.”
“Blaine Amendments are anti-Catholic in their origin, and getting rid of them is more than a century overdue,” she added. “Today’s decision demands a more fair and inclusive approach to government programs meant to serve all people."
The decision “will have an effect” in the future, David Cortman, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, who argued the case for the church before the Court in April, said. “Whenever religious people, organizations, see themselves being discriminated against, this case will be the controlling precedent,” he added.
Members of Congress also weighed in on the decision. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) called it “an important ruling for religious liberty with profound significance for America’s civil society.”