Supreme Court rules churches are eligible for some public funds

Supreme Court rules churches are eligible for some public funds
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The Supreme Court ruled Monday that states can't exclude religious organizations when distributing grant funding for state programs when the money is for a nonreligious purpose.

In a 7-2 ruling, the court sided with Trinity Lutheran Church in the case challenging Missouri's decision to bar it from receiving funds in a state program that reimburses nonprofits for resurfacing their playgrounds with recycled rubber tires.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor read a fiery dissent, which was also signed by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, from the bench.

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Though Trinity operates a preschool and day care center on its property, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources said the state constitution prohibits it from using public funds to support a church.

The court said the state's policy violated the rights of Trinity Lutheran under the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause by denying the church an otherwise available public benefit on account of its religious status.

“The free Exercise Clause ‘protects religious observers against unequal treatment’ and subjects to the strictest scrutiny laws that target the religious for ‘special disabilities’ based on their religious status,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in delivering the opinion of the court.

“Apply that basic principle, 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 that cant be justified only be a state interest ‘of the highest order.’”

In her dissent, Sotomayor said the court's decision "profoundly changes" the relationship between church and state by holding for the the first time that the Constitution requires the government to provide public funds directly to a church.

"Its decision slights both our precedents and out history, and its reasoning weakens this country's longstanding commitment to a separation of church and state beneficial to both," she said.

—Updated at 11:53 a.m.