Amid a sharp disagreement among the Justices about whether it was setting a broad new precedent giving churches access to government money, the Supreme Court ruled on Monday that religious organizations cannot be denied equal access to neutral public benefits.
While the main opinion insisted that the outcome was “unremarkable in light of our prior decisions,” the ruling did – apparently for the first time ever – order a government agency to transfer public funds directly to a church organization when its bid for the money competes equally with non-religious entities.. In this case, from Missouri, it was a church-operated pre-school.
The decision divided the court 7-to-2 on the bottom line, but the group of seven Justices was far from uniform in their approach to the case. The four Justices who joined fully in the main opinion strove to make it seem very limited – to facilities for school playgrounds — while a fifth Justice sought to make it seem even more limited, and two others made clear that they wanted it to be read expansively, for future cases on church-government relations.
The most clear-cut statements came in the two-Justice dissent, claiming that the ruling broke with long constitutional tradition and “weakens this country’s longstanding commitment to a separation of church and state beneficial to both.”
When lower courts seek to apply the ruling, they will have to make up their own minds whether to read it only as an endorsement of a public benefit that helps protect the safety of children who happen to attend a church-operated school, or a broad embrace of the idea that treating religious organizations less favorably in government programs almost never can be justified. Either interpretation probably could find support in the several opinions.
The ultimate impact of the case could spread at least to the 37 states that now have state constitutional clauses that bar the transfer of any funds from the state treasury to any church or other religious organization.
At issue in this specific case was a program of public grants by the state of Missouri that would go to organizations so that they could buy recycled rubber from used tires to provide a more cushioned surface for playgrounds. Trinity Lutheran Church, of Columbia, Mo., qualified for the program, but was turned away for the one reason that it was a church.
If the church is still interested, it probably can now get the money, because the program has been renewed and the Supreme Court decision appears to make it fully eligible, at least to compete, although the ruling did not specifically guarantee a grant, as such.
The decision was among the most significant of a number of actions the Justices took on the day of the final public session of the current term – including allowing the Trump Administration to begin enforcing its controversial restrictions on entry into the U.S. of foreign nationals from Mideast Muslim nations and refugees (see the post below).
Here, in brief, are some of the other major actions:
** Following up its decision two years ago giving same-sex couples an equal constitutional right to get married, it issued one of its first sequel decisions, striking down an Arkansas law that barred the female spouse of a mother from having both of their names shown as parents on the child’s birth certificate.
** Setting the stage to consider another sequel to the same-sex marriage decision, the court agreed to decide – at its next term – whether the operator of a business who has a religious objection to such marriages can be forced, under state civil rights law, to provide services to such couples. The issue arises in the case of a Colorado bakery owner who refused to create a cake for a gay wedding.
** As it has done repeatedly in the nine years since it first ruled that the Second Amendment protects a right to have a gun for personal self-defense, the Justices refused again to decide whether that right extends outside the home. At issue was the situation in California, where carrying a gun openly in public is barred by a state law, and some counties add to that a ban on carrying a concealed weapon in public. Two Justices dissented from the refusal to hear that case.
** In a case in which a U.S. Border Patrol agent shot and killed a Mexican boy who was playing on the Mexico side of the border, the court ordered lower courts to reconsider a ruling that barred the dead boy’s parents from suing the agent. The return of the case to lower courts for a new look, however, came in an opinion that seems to further doom the parents’ legal chances.
** The court asked the Trump Administration to react to an appeal by Arizona state officials, seeking to revive their program of denying drivers’ licenses to youths who had come to the country illegally with their parents, and have remained here, and now qualify for a program set up by the Obama Administration that would defer their deportation. The new Administration will offer its views on whether the court should hear and decide the Arizona appeal.
The court will issue one more round of orders on Tuesday morning, before going on summer recess. The new term will open on the first Monday in October.