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Playground case touches on separation of church and state

Playground case touches on separation of church and stateā€

Missouri has said there is nothing unconstitutional about its grant programme, noting that Trinity Lutheran remains free to practice any aspect of its faith however it wishes despite being denied state funds. "It shouldn't matter if you're attending a preschool at a religious organization or attending a public school".

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy asked whether religious schools and colleges in California could see state funds on an equal basis to make their buildings "earthquake proof".

"You're denying one set of actors from competing [for the grant money] because of religion", Justice Elena Kagan said.

In the past, a more liberal Supreme Court said the 1st Amendment's ban on an "establishment of religion" meant the government could not subsidize church schools.

Becket attorney Hannah Smith says the state rejected the application because Trinity is a religious institution. On the state's list of eligible recipients, the church originally scored higher than the ultimate recipient of the grants, the legal group Alliance Defending Freedom has said.

Since California's constitution was passed in 1879, a strict separation between church and state has been enshrined in state law. The initial readouts suggest good news is on the way for Trinity Lutheran. Other states have similar amendments.

The case is so important that lawyers for ADF and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) argued it at a mock hearing before mock Supreme Court justices held at Washington, D.C.'s Newseum.

Greitens announced last Thursday that Missouri's Department of Natural Resources would allow religious organizations to apply for and receive grants like the ones denied to Trinity under Nixon's administration.

Based on the questions at argument today, a number of the justices appeared to be concerned about the state's lack of a limiting principle on excluding religiously-affiliated groups from state grant programs.

Missouri responded that the constitutional provision does nothing to interfere with a church's religious activities.

But Justice Stephen Breyer pressed Layton to explain why the state can take money from its treasury to pay for police and fire services that benefit members of a church, but not to protect kinds from scrapping their knees or breaking a leg.

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Cortman replied that the church is, in effect, being coerced into a choice.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor said she believes "that this program is part of the religious ministry of this church".

"All we're talking about is a safer surface on the playground for when kids plays", David Cortman, the church's lawyer, told the court.

He argued that government should be neutral toward religion and that blocking the church from a widely available public program "imposes special burdens on non-profit organizations with a religious identity".

Trinity Lutheran sued, noting its grant request was for a non-religious objective. Previously, applicants had to state that they were not owned or controlled by a church.

Finally, two groups that have filed friend-of-the-court briefs in support of the state's refusal to provide the grant filed a letter Tuesday that argued the case is, in fact, moot. It was "reenacted" in the latest version of the state's constitution in 1945.

"It's a religious discrimination issue", she said.

The money saved can then be used by the church for any goal - including proselytizing, printing worship materials, paying clergy, or getting wonderful flower arrangements for Easter Sunday. That includes a clear ban on spending public money "for support of any sectarian or denominational school", or on "any school not under the exclusive control of the officers of the public schools".

Missouri's constitution, like those in at least 36 other states, bars sending tax money to churches and church schools. Hawley had been a private attorney for Trinity Lutheran Church before taking office in January, and hasn't had anything to do with the case since.

The case, which tests the limits of religious freedom under the U.S. Constitution, is considered one of the most important to come before the court during its current term.

There is a procedural wrinkle - that developed on the eve of arguments - that could give the justices an off-ramp to deciding the case. "I think the theme that came out was what we emphasized in our briefs, and that is if the government is going to open up some sort of a neutral benefit program, then it can't discriminate against religious organizations simply due to their religious status", he insisted.



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