Written by:  Katie Davies

On April 19, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Pauley, which presents the question of whether religiously affiliated schools can be constitutionally denied equal access to a government benefit, even if the benefit has nothing to do with matters of faith.

This case involves a program in Missouri that provides rubberized material for school playgrounds. In 2012, Trinity Lutheran Church applied for a state program that reimburses nonprofits for the purchase and installation of rubber playground surfaces made from recycled tires. Missouri’s Department of Natural Resources, which administers the playground program, ranked Trinity Lutheran’s application 5th out of the 44 that were submitted. Despite its ranking, the department denied Trinity Lutheran’s application on the basis of a provision in the state constitution that prohibits allocation of money from the state treasury.

At the heart of this case is a provision in Missouri’s constitution that bars parochial schools from such public benefits, otherwise known as the “Blaine Amendment.” The amendment reads in part: “No money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect, or denomination or religion.”

The church is challenging the Department’s decision arguing that its exclusion from a state program that provides grants to help nonprofits buy rubber playground surfaces discriminates against religious institutions and, therefore, violates the Constitution. The State argues that there is no constitutional violation because the church can still worship or run its daycare; in other words, the state’s decision in no way impedes the church’s ability to practice or worship. However, in a somewhat unorthodox move, Missouri’s newly elected Governor, Eric Greitens, changed the state’s policy by lifting the ban on state grants for religious organizations. Therefore, the first question the Court will address is whether the Governor’s policy change has rendered this case moot, or is no longer ripe for decision.

Assuming the Court permits the case to go forward, the decision could subject Alaska, as well as 35 other states with similar constitutional mandates, to the same type of challenge. Alaska’s Constitution, at least in its intent, essentially mirrors Missouri’s prohibition for allocating tax dollars to religious or private educational organizations. Specifically, the Constitution states that: “No money shall be paid from public funds for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution.” The Constitution further restricts the use of public money for private or religious institutions by stating: “No tax shall be levied, or appropriation of public money made, or public property transferred, nor shall the public credit be used, except for a public purpose.”

If the Court agrees with the church that the constitutional mandate of separation of church and state is being taken too far because it is no longer being applied neutrally, it could result in taxpayer funds going to groups that discriminate based on sexual orientation or religion. Conversely, if the Court upholds the constitutional mandate, everything from school vouchers to fire and safety protection for private religious schools could be in jeopardy. One thing is for sure, many interested parties are anxiously awaiting the Court’s ruling in this case.

https://www.oyez.org/cases/2016/15-577