The Supreme Court ended its term Monday with a major First Amendment decision, ruling that efforts at separating church and state go too far when they deny religious institutions access to government grants meant for a secular purpose.
In siding with a Missouri church that had been denied money to resurface its playground, the court ruled 7-2 that excluding churches from state programs for which other charitable groups are eligible is a violation of the Constitution’s protection of the free exercise of religion.
“The consequence is, in all likelihood, a few extra scraped knees,” wrote Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. “But the exclusion of Trinity Lutheran from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, solely because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution all the same, and cannot stand.”
Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Mo., brought the case because it was excluded from a state program that reimburses the cost of rubberizing the surface of playgrounds. The church scored high in the grant process, but Missouri’s state constitution, like those in about three dozen states, forbade government from spending public money on “any church, sect, or denomination of religion.”
The decision came as the court completed work on the cases it had accepted for the term and scheduled a couple for fresh arguments in front of a full court including Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, who joined the court in April.
But the day was also notable for what did not happen. All eyes were on Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, the court’s pivotal member, who was reported to be thinking about retirement after nearly 30 years on the court. The speculation about Kennedy, who is almost always the deciding vote in divisive cases on the nation’s biggest controversies, has dominated the end of a relatively quiet Supreme Court term.
The White House was watching closely because Kennedy’s exit would give President Trump the chance to solidify a more conservative Supreme Court. Of course, Kennedy could announce his intentions at any time, and the only words he uttered from the bench Monday were from an opinion he delivered.
The court’s ruling in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer was a narrow one, but experts said it is sure to bring more challenges from religious groups in other areas.
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