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Conscience Magazine

Supreme Court Blurs Religious Freedom in Trinity Lutheran

August 10, 2017

On June 26, the United States Supreme Court ruled that a religious organization was wrongfully denied public funds in violation of the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment. Trinity Lutheran Church in Missouri applied for a state grant to be used to resurface its playground; based on the criteria of the grant, the church was theoretically a strong candidate for the funds. The State of Missouri, however, viewing the facts in light of the establishment clause of the First Amend­ment, denied Trinity Lutheran Church’s applica­tion, thereby not using public funds in support of a reli­gious institution.

The Supreme Court’s frac­tured opinion muddles the boundary between church and state as well as First Amendment jurisprudence. Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Roberts indicated that the free-exercise clause was controlling and that the State of Missouri’s grant program discriminated against reli­gious institutions for being religiously affiliated. He also indicated that it might matter whether the discrimination was based on the identity of the person or organization, as it was here, or on the use to which said person or orga­nization would put funds. Justices Thomas and Gorsuch concurred in the judgment, but said there should be no distinction between identity and use; Justices Ginsburg and Soto­mayor dissented, arguing that no distinction could be made between religious iden­tity and purpose in this case, and that the establishment clause proscribed using state funds for any religious purpose. Until more clarity is provided, states will likely have to make complicated calls on religious identity and purpose if they are trying to comply with federal law.