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US Supreme Court hands major victory to churches

August 20, 2017

After a Missouri church was denied funds to resurface its playground, the Supreme Court ruled in June 2017 that separation of church and state goes too far when they withhold government grants from religious institutions.

Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, MO, was denied access to state program funds set aside for charitable organizations when the church sought reimbursement for the cost of rubberizing the surface of its playground. Although the church scored high in the grant process, Missouri’s state constitution forbids spending public money on any church or religious denomination.

Citing that government grants cannot be denied for secular purposes, the court ruled 7-2 that religious entities cannot be excluded from state programs based on similar grounds. This denial directly violates the Constitution’s protection of the free exercise of religion found in the First Amendment.

Experts say the court’s ruling in Trinity v. Comer will bring more challenges in other areas by religious groups. The court’s reasoning sends a strong message that the exclusion of a church from a resurfacing playground project will not be tolerated just as a child should not be excluded from a school-choice program in which they are eligible to attend a religious school on a scholarship.

Supporters of the separation of church and state expressed their disappointment in the ruling. Many are worried about the entanglement of church and government and expressed frustration that the court did not respect Missouri’s strict constitutional prohibition, which is similar to that of 38 other state constitutions.

Many of these states allow church participation in programs that are generally available to the public and are for secular benefits such as safety and health. In a surprising twist, Eric Greitens, the new Republican governor, reversed the policy that originally denied Trinity’s 2012 application, and churches are now eligible to participate.

A private lawyer has been appointed by the new attorney general to defend Missouri’s original policy on church and state.

Larry Bellomo is an Orange County Family Law and Bankruptcy attorney with decades of experience supporting the community.