WASHINGTON – For the first time, The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in a case from the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals that governments must not deny religious entities money simply for being a religious organization. This ruling could impact future policy workings, funding for private and religious schools, and challenges to state Blaine Amendments.

This ruling could impact future policy workings, funding for private and religious schools, and challenges to state Blaine Amendments.

The ruling on Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia Inc. v. Comer, Director, Missouri Department of Natural Resources was made during the court's October term reversing the previous ruling in favor of the defendant. The Department denied Trinity’s Child Care Center a state subsidy simply because it was a religious entity, relying considerably on the state’s Blaine Amendment, a constitutional provision in 38 states that forbid direct government aid to educational institutions that have a religious affiliation.

Erica Smith, attorney for the Institute for Justice in Arlington said that “The Supreme Court made one thing absolutely clear in Trinity Lutheran: state Blaine Amendments cannot be used to discriminate against a person or entity because of their religious identity. Missouri claimed that compliance with its Blaine Amendment required the exclusion of the church-run preschool from the scrap tire program, and the Supreme Court held that compliance with the Blaine Amendment was not a sufficiently compelling justification for that discrimination.”

Trinity’s Child Learning Center applied for the Scrap Tire program, hoping to resurface the center’s playground.  The Department denied their application, citing Missouri Constitution Article 1, Section which says no public money shall go to any religious organization.  Trinity filed a lawsuit in 2012.

The district court dismissed the case, saying that because The Department was not required to give the Scrap Tire subsidy to anyone, they did not violate any law. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, and Trinity appealed. Chief Justice John Roberts said in the Supreme Court Opinion that The Department’s reasoning “offers nothing more than Missouri’s preference for skating as far as possible from religious establishment concerns.”

The Supreme Court reversed the decision, disdaining The Department’s practice of denying grants to any applicant from a religious organization. “This Court has repeatedly confirmed that denying a generally available benefit solely on account of religious identity imposes a penalty on the free exercise of religion.”

The Court was careful to note that this decision not about how the money was used, but to whom the money is given, and was specific to this case, not addressing religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination, including other states.

“If a religious institution files a legal challenge, showing that the state is using a Blaine Amendment to discriminate against it solely because it is religious, then Trinity Lutheran requires that the institution prevail. “said Smith. In Pennsylvania, the Blaine Amendments have been a hot topic regarding school choice. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of school choice programs in 2002 in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, where the Court rejected a challenge that a scholarship program violated the federal Establishment of Religion Clause.

Trinity Lutheran ruled that the way Missouri applied the Blaine Amendment was unconstitutional. Smith expounded that “As Trinity Lutheran makes clear, applying a Blaine Amendment to discriminate against a person or entity because of their religious identity violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”

In dissent, Justice Sotomayor said that the court’s ruling in this case is directly opposite of the original intent of the founding fathers and of the fairly consistent rulings of the courts since then.

The Supreme Court has confirmed that the Blaines cannot be used to discriminate. Smith said, “In Trinity Lutheran (and in other cases, such as Widmar v. Vincent), the Supreme Court held that Blaine Amendments cannot justify discrimination against religion.”

The Trinity Lutheran decision may mark a turning point for states using Blaines as justification for discrimination against religious organizations, and the church and state separation.  “The Trinity Lutheran majority …. reiterates a principle that has long existed in the case law: that the government cannot discriminate against someone based on their religious identity. This goes to the very core of our right to freely exercise religion under the First Amendment.”

Supreme Court of the United States, Slip Opinion, Case Number 15-577

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