The United States Supreme Court released several decisions today, one of which received considerable attention.
In a win for religious liberty, the court ruled that a Christian school, Trinity Lutheran, cannot be denied materials from the State of Missouri based solely on the fact that it is a religious institution, adding clarity to the meaning of the term “Separation of Church and State”.
A few quotations from the 7-2 ruling, written by Chief Justice Roberts:
“The State in this case expressly requires Trinity Lutheran to renounce its religious character in order to participate in an otherwise generally available public benefit program, for which it is fully qualified.”
“…the Department offers nothing more than Missouri’s policy preference for skating as far as possible from religious establishment concerns.”
“As we said when considering Missouri’s same policy preference on a prior occasion, ‘the state interest asserted here–in achieving greater separation of church and State than is already ensured under the Establishment Clause of the Federal Constitution–is limited by the Free Exercise Clause.'”
“The Missouri Department of Natural Resources has not subjected anyone to chains or torture on account of religion. And the result of the State’s policy is nothing so dramatic as the denial of political office. The consequence is, in all likelihood, a few extra scraped knees. 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.”
It is refreshing to see an opinion from the Supreme Court that appears to support the intent of the authors of our Constitution in this matter. After all, and as previously noted in this space, the phrase “Separation of Church and State” originated in a Thomas Jefferson letter. Jefferson then, as President, authorized the use of federal tax dollars to support Christian missionaries.
Therefore, with that information in mind, how can the Court justify the following statements from the dissenting opinion?
“This case is about nothing less than the relationship between religious institutions and the civil government–that is, between church and state. The Court today profoundly changes that relationship by holding, for the first time, that the Constitution requires the government to provide public funds directly to a church. Its decision slights both our precedents and our history, and its reasoning weakens this country’s longstanding commitment to a separation of church and state beneficial to both.”
While the majority opinion focused on the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, the two member dissenting opinion took issue with the Establishment Clause:
“The Establishment Clause does not allow Missouri to grant the Church’s funding request because the Church uses the Learning Center, including its playground, in conjunction with its religious mission. The Court’s silence on this front signals either its misunderstanding of the facts of this case or a startling departure from our precedents.”
“Within its walls, worshippers gather to practice and reaffirm their faith. And from its base, the faithful reach out to those not yet convinced of the group’s beliefs. When a government funds a house of worship, it underwrites this religious exercise.”
And yet, President Jefferson evidently did not see this as a violation of the Establishment Clause. After all, in the context of his letter to the Baptists in Danbury, the intent of the Establishment Clause is to keep the government from “establishing” a State religion or denomination or becoming involved in the decisions of the Church. At issue in this case is whether Missouri’s strict view of the Establishment Clause is justification for its violation of the Free Exercise Clause.
The clarity on this, presented today by the Supreme Court, is very much needed and long overdue.