More than a playground: church-state conflict

By Steven Puro

Principles of church-state separation are a key protection of religious freedom in America. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits government establishment of religion and allows free exercise of religion to ensure a broad scope of religious beliefs. Each individual wants liberty of conscience and this liberty is endangered without the principles of separation of church and state. These principles aid citizens since their taxes are not given to religious institutions.

Last week the U.S. Supreme Court in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer addressed matters of providing state funds to religious institutions. Chief Justice Roberts in a 7-2 majority decision ruled in favor of Trinity Lutheran. The Court said that religious institutions may not be excluded from state programs with secular intent and that Missouri’s policy violated the church’s right to free exercise of its religion. This decision has far reaching implications about how state and local governments can fund religious institutions.

The case concerns the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (MNR) denial of the church’s grant application to assist non-profit organizations to buy rubber playground surfaces for its playground. The denial was based upon a Missouri Constitutional provision prohibiting money from the state treasury going “directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect or denomination of religion.” (Art 1., sec 7) Thirty-nine states have similar “no-aid” clauses which protect faith communities from government interference. 

The Church claimed that MNR denial violated their free exercise of religion and they faced discrimination based upon fact that they are a religious institution. An underlying question is whether funding for the church playground could be separated from the church’s religious activities? The Supreme Court decided to proceed with this key church-state issue despite Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens’ ruling a week prior to oral arguments that Missouri had changed its policy to allow churches to apply for these grants.


The Court’s ruling allows direct government funding to religious institutions when there is a secular intent. The United States has a long history of States not wanting to fund churches and religious activities. While states can provide some general secular benefits, such as fire and police protection and funding for security systems, there are difficult lines to be drawn between funding activities and religious practices. Once the door to supporting religious institutions with public benefits is opened, how do you draw distinctions between laws that discriminate on the basis of religious status and religious use? 

We at the Midwest Jewish Congress, formerly the American Jewish Congress, support independence of faith communities from state involvement. We also support the ability of churches, synagogues or mosques to have free exercise of religion. We also oppose states’ discrimination against free exercise of religion. Fundamental issues of religious freedom are raised when the state is placed in the situation of choosing among funding different religious groups.

The Midwest Jewish Congress believes that the Court does not see the broader implications of this case by its  diminishing the high standards for separation of church and state. We agree that the state should not discriminate against religious institutions when applying for or receiving general secular benefits. As religious institutions become entangled with government funding lines between secular and religious funding are blurred, the funding sources weaken rather than enhance religious freedom. In looking to the future, the Trinity Lutheran case does not tell us what will become the U.S. Supreme Court’s test for “religious uses of funding.”  

The extent of the current decision will depend upon whether other states follow Missouri or maintain separation of church and state. We advocate that the Supreme Court put strict limitations on government funds going directly to religious institutions unless those funds support specific secular activities. 

Steven Puro is President of the Midwest Jewish Congress and Professor Emeritus of Political Science at St. Louis University.