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US Supreme Court rules for Columbia, Mo., church in playground case

Monday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision involving a Missouri church ultimately could make it easier for religious institutions to seek out state money for non-religious needs.

The justices ruled 7-2 in favor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, which had sought a state grant to put a soft surface on its preschool playground, but was denied funding. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote it is “odious to our Constitution” to exclude the church from the grant program.

The church was represented by Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom. In an interview with St. Louis Public Radio, senior counsel Erik Stanley said the decision means “the government has to treat religious people the same as any other community member.”

“The court was very quick to point out that Trinity Lutheran Church was a member of the community as well in Missouri,” Stanley said. “And it needed to be treated like a community member, not singled out and disadvantaged solely because of its … religious identification.”

Among the elected leaders praising the decision was Missouri’s attorney general, who said in a statement that it was a “great day” for the church and an “even better day for religious freedom in America.”

“Gov. Jay Nixon’s administration was wrong to interpret Missouri’s Constitution to require such unlawful discrimination,” Josh Hawley said. “Today’s decision means discrimination of this kind will never be permitted again in the state of Missouri or anywhere.”

Gov. Eric Greitens, who in April reversed a Missouri policy that had banned religious organizations from receiving certain state grants, said in a statement that: “People of faith won an important victory today.” He also referenced his earlier policy change, adding that the state “did not back down” and “will continue to fight for people of faith.”

But Daniel Mach, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Program of Religion and Belief, said that “religious freedom should protect unwilling taxpayers from funding church property, not force them to foot the bill.”

The impact is unclear

Both Trinity Lutheran, the state’s representation and legal observers have differing opinions about the long-term impact of the court’s decision.

Hawley had represented the church before recusing himself from the case when he took office. He appointed former Missouri Solicitor General Jim Layton to represent the Department of Natural Resources in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Layton said in an interview that justices ruled fairly narrowly, adding that it doesn’t necessarily guarantee that religious groups are entitled to public money.

“So it didn’t address a facility that would be used by the church for worship purposes or for expressly religious purposes,” he said. “And it dealt with a program that is available to anyone, except church, that meets a certain set of criteria. What we will see in the future will be programs that different kinds of criteria, ones that don’t exclude churches just because they’re churches but for some other reason.”

Both Layton and Saint Louis University Law School Dean Emeritus Michael Wolff agreed that there’s no definitive answer on whether a state government can prevent money from going to a religious school. Missouri does not have a program providing direct or indirect funds to private, religious-based schools, commonly known as a voucher program.

“I just think that there are a number of trend lines that might lead us [to providing funding for religious schools]. They may be two or three cases away from doing that,” said Wolff, a former Missouri Supreme Court judge. “But I think there’s substantial support in terms of the trending of the law to believe that may be where the law is headed. … The wall between separation of church and state may have some holes in it for things like education and other things.”

But Stanley, the attorney for Trinity, said the ruling “definitely will remove a roadblock” that prevents religious institutions from participating in these “neutral government programs.”

“What happened here was a program that had nothing to do with religion, yet Trinity Lutheran was singled out because of its religious status,” Stanley said. “I think what that will do is help religious organizations not [gain] special access to programs, but to be treated equally. So if they’re otherwise eligible for the program, then I think they’ll be allowed to be treated equally — and in fact they’re mandated by the U.S. Constitution now to be treated equally.”

Missouri Department of Natural Resources Director Carol Comer issued a statement, saying she believes the decision “strengthens the policy of the Greitens administration.”

Marshall Griffin in Jefferson City and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.