Supreme Court rules in favor of church in religious rights case

Children play on the playground at the Trinity Lutheran Child Learning Center in Columbia Mo

In another case Monday, the court ruled in favor of two married same-sex couples in Arkansas who challenged a state law that did not allow both partners to be listed as parents on a birth certificate. The Court ruling confirms that the Constitutionally protected freedom of religion, as guaranteed by the First Amendment, should not be superceded by "separation of church and state", a policy which has been inferred from the penumbra of the Constitution. "The general principles here do not permit discrimination against religious exercise- whether on the playground or anywhere else".

The program ranked the church's application fifth out of 44 applications it received, but despite qualifying, it did not grant money from the state treasury. NPR's Tom Gjelten has the story. And it is that last-mentioned fact that calls the Free Exercise Clause into play. Government can not, through the enactment of a "law respecting an establishment of religion", start us down the path to the past, when this right was routinely abridged.

The court said Monday that it will hear next term the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop, a Colorado bakery that refused the business of a gay couple in 2012.

The Court stated in Everson that "cutting off church schools from" such "general government services as ordinary police and fire obviously not the goal of the First Amendment". The church sued, saying that by not giving it a grant that other institutions got, the state was punishing it for being a religious entity. "The state merely declines to offer financial support".

The amendment "should not act as a bar to a religious organization receiving a nonsectarian grant, like the offered through the scrap tire program, that do nothing to establish a religion", he said.

GJELTEN: But the court today disagreed.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. clearly signaled that the court was not wading into questions about taxpayer-funded religious activity, emphasizing in a footnote that the court was ruling on a case involving "religious identity with respect to playground resurfacing" and not taking a stance on "religious uses of funding".

Justice Neil Gorsuch, known for his circuit court decisions to defend religious liberty, voted with the majority and wrote a concurring opinion that argues for broad application of the ruling.

Joining the decision in full were Justices Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alito and Elena Kagan. If you believe that the "separation of church and state" requires the government to discriminate against church schools in the funding of playground surfaces, you just might be committed to a principle out of all proportion to its original objective.

"That puts somewhat of an onus on the state to make sure that if we're going to have a program and we're saying that it's open to everyone, it's meant to serve all the kids in our state, then it should be a program. that includes kids that go to private and religious schools", said the group's Washington director, Rabbi Abba Cohen. After all, what happened here sounds awfully un-American: a church was denied a government benefit simply because it's a church. Bible readings, hymn singing, and daily prayer were standard practice in most public schools. Lily Eskelsen Garcia is president of the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union. Some critics argue using public money for religious school tuition is a violation of the Constitution's separation of church and state. That didn't happen today.

THOMAS DUPREE: This is the sort of issue I suspect we're going to see the court returning to in the years ahead particularly if they solidify a five-justice conservative majority.

GJELTEN: As a result, today's ruling left some questions unanswered, ensuring they will come before the court again. No doubt, we need to honor the mandate to "make no law respecting the establishment of religion", but we must also balance that with our right to the free exercise of our religious consciences and to protect religious people and organizations from being unfairly targeted for official disfavor.

When the government denies funds to a church, it is not inhibiting religious freedom.

"This case is about nothing less than the relationship between religious institutions and the civil government - that is, between church and state", Justice Sotomayor wrote in her dissent, which was joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

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