Keep Church-State Barrier Strong

Jewish Light Editorial

A dispute involving public money going to religious institutions has ridden on shredded tires from mid-Missouri all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court – with a slight detour courtesy of the state’s new governor.

Now that the justices have heard arguments from both sides, the court should use the case to reaffirm the traditional separation between church and state, and keep it strong.

Last week, the court heard the case brought by Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia ( against the state of Missouri. Back in 2012, the church applied to take part in a state program that offered rubberized playground surfaces made from scrap tires. The program was designed to reduce the amount of scrap tires in dump sites and is paid for by fees imposed on the sale of new tires.

Originally, Trinity Lutheran qualified for a $5,000 grant.  Then, the Department of Natural Resources said it couldn’t get the money, citing a provision in the Missouri Constitution that says in part: “No money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect or denomination of religion.”


Trinity Lutheran sued, claiming that the ruling violates religious freedom guarantees in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The suit was dismissed in district court; a divided federal appeals court panel ruled against the church, saying there was no “break in the link” between state funds and religion.

In their arguments before the court, both sides have addressed bedrock principles of the separation between church and state. And in their questioning, the justices asked about balancing the constitutional right to freely exercise religious beliefs with the constitutional provision against establishing a government-sanctioned religion.

The church, which has been represented by the Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom, argued that the lower courts wrongly interpreted the church-state prohibition. The church’s preschool playground has no religious purpose, it said, and there is no reason to deny children who use its equipment the same safety measures that kids who use a playground at a secular institution may have.

The state countered that giving Trinity Lutheran money for the state program could in effect free up that same amount from the church’s budget to spend on religious activities, so the end result would be that Missouri is subsidizing religion. Both the state and the church should avoid that situation, the state argued.

Some questions from the justices last week (  echoed the church’s position that religious groups already benefit from public services like police and fire protection, and this case should be no different. The state responded, correctly, that there is a difference between such basic services and more specialized ones such as the safer surface on a church playground.

The case began while Jay Nixon, a Democrat, was governor, and his administration defended the constitutional prohibition. When Eric Greitens, a Republican, took over as governor in January, the state’s position changed. Just before the justices were going to hear arguments in the case, he said the state would allow religious groups to qualify for grants like the one in question.

Karen Aroesty, regional director for the Anti-Defamation League (see related commentary on opposite page), said in a statement, “Gov. Greitens opens a can of constitutionally entangled worms in direct violation of the Missouri Constitution.” A statement by the  Americans United for Separation of Church and State agreed, saying that state government should “use Missouri tax dollars to protect our great natural resources. The thought of religious groups in the unseemly spectacle of competing for such dollars is unsettling. This is not simply bad law; it is bad public policy.”

Despite speculation that the turnabout might make the case moot, the arguments went forward. The basic issues remain, and both sides wanted the Supreme Court to clarify the matter in case more reversals in policy occur in the future.

The court’s eventual ruling could affect only Missouri, or it could have a much broader impact, touching the many states whose constitutions have similar prohibitions against using state funds to benefit religious institutions. But in their decision, the justices should side with the state.

All religious groups should be wary of accepting public money, just as taxpayers should resist having their money used to support religion. The safeguards in the federal and state constitutions are there for good reason.

Not only should taxpayers not have to support religious institutions that may or may not conform to their beliefs, but the institutions themselves — churches, synagogues, mosques and others — should not want to accept government money that would and should bring government oversight as well. In this case, and all similar ones, keeping a sturdy wall between church and state in place is vital to everyone.