By BJC Blogger Don Byrd
Does a church have a constitutional right to use state funds to improve its playground? What if the state has a program in which it provides funds for resurfacing playgrounds, but the state’s constitution explicitly states that “no money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect, or denomination of religion”?
On Jan. 15, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it will hear a case that will examine the limits of government funding of houses of worship.
This case began when the director of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources denied the request of Trinity Lutheran Church for funds to participate in the playground resurfacing program, citing the state constitutional provision barring government funding of religion. The church filed suit, claiming that the decision violates its religious freedom rights under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
In June of 2015, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the “no aid to religion” provision in the Missouri Constitution and affirmed that the church’s case should be dismissed. The church appealed, and the Supreme Court decided it will weigh in on the case later this year.
Several state constitutions contain a provision specifying that no public funds are to be used to aid a church or religious denomination. Such language maintains a solid wall of separation between church and state when it comes to government funding, stronger even than that provided by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In this case, the 8th Circuit determined that Supreme Court precedent clearly affirms the right of states to provide that level of protection. In other words, the court ruled that even if the First Amendment allows some funding to religious institutions, it does not require states to fund church repairs.
At press time, the Court had not set an argument date for Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Pauley.
From the February 2016 Report from the Capital. Click here to read the next story.