Why You Need To Know The Story Of The U.S. Supreme Court In The Trinity Lutheran Church Case

By Victor Ochieng

Trinity Lutheran Church filed a lawsuit against the state of Missouri, claiming that the state was biased in their distribution of publicly funded grants. The state runs a grant program that pays for expenses relating to the construction of playground surface using recycled tires. The program is meant to cut down the number of landfills across the state, as well as transform the playground surfaces to be safer for children.

The church says in the lawsuit that the state discriminated against them when they applied for the grant. The church is decrying the fact that they made an application, met all the requirements and even got a high rating, but were denied the grant because they are a church.

In their defense, the state says they’ve got a clause in their constitution that prohibits giving public money to churches as a way to observe neutrality. More than 30 states have similar policies, which came into effect in the 19th century to rid disfavored treatment to different groups of people, especially Catholic immigrants.

In their argument, however, Trinity Lutheran Church says they applied for the funds for a purely secular purpose, which is basically to make the playground safer for kids. As such, they’ve charged that the state is simply being hostile to religion.

During the oral session, the courtroom was quite active with the justices openly arguing their points, talking over one another and doing their best to ask as many questions as possible.

The case was granted review in January 2016, but the justices seemingly intentionally held off their hearing to get enough time to dig deeper into it and build their arguments. This dragged until the 9th Supreme Court justice was confirmed.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg then shot up a question to David Cortman, an attorney representing the Trinity Lutheran Church, asking him why a 1947 case whose verdict was that the state shouldn’t fund projects involving the building of churches doesn’t apply to this one.

In response, Cortman said the same court also stated that states shouldn’t deny churches government benefits, pointing out that the state of Missouri just broke that rule. He urged the justices to focus on what the money was funding, which is a secular activity aimed at ensuring the safety of children.

Justice Elena Kagan used an analogy in which she compared the church’s project to providing computers to churches, which had previously been ruled against. Cortman, however, shot back saying the current case is so easy to decide because, unlike computers that can be used to promote religious activity, a kids’ playground cannot be used for the same.

The justices will have to go through the issues raised and come up with an opinion by the time the court’s term ends in June.