The U.S. Supreme Court’s restoration of the president’s terror travel ban gobbled up most of the attention on Monday. But an equally important ruling handed down the same day may have a more lasting and profound impact on Americans’ lives.
The high court voted 7-2 to prohibit the government from discriminating against religious institutions when doling out taxpayer monies for secular purposes.
Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Mo., had brought the case because, as The Washington Post put it:
“It was excluded from a state program that reimburses the cost of rubberizing the surface of playgrounds. The church scored high in the grant process, but Missouri’s state constitution, like those in about three dozen states, forbade government from spending public money on ‘any church, sect, or denomination of religion.’”
Of course, that blanket prohibition was not only so overbroad as to be nonsensical – it’s lunacy to think protecting kids on a playground is “respecting an establishment of religion” as the First Amendment contemplates – but it’s affirmatively discriminatory: Missouri went out of its way to deny the church a grant because God is worshiped nearby.
“The exclusion of Trinity Lutheran from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, solely because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts, “and cannot stand.”
Some battles over rights are zero-sum games in which, if someone wins greater rights, someone else loses theirs. That’s not the case here. Protecting the right of religious entities not to be discriminated against doesn’t cost the opposition a thing.
In contrast, religious institutions and organizations have now secured their God-given rights to equality.
To have denied religious entities their rights would’ve been to punish them. Unconstitutionally.
“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,” Roberts wrote.
David Cortman, senior counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom – which argued the case before the court on behalf of the church – hailed the decision.
“The government should treat children’s safety at religious schools the same as it does at nonreligious schools,” Cortman said in a statement. “The decision today affirms that commonsense principle and the larger truth that government isn’t being neutral when it treats religious organizations worse than everyone else.”
Indeed, even children on a playground learn early on about the notion of fairness.
School choice advocates hailed the ruling as providing hope for religious schools to someday compete for government-issued school vouchers. We’re not sure that’s the case: Inside a school where a particular religion is taught is a much different place than outside on a child’s playground.
Moreover, we’d caution our friends in religious education to be wary of accepting government education money; it always comes with strings. Government, until recently, remember, has been used as a bludgeon to force entities to allow students to use the bathrooms and lockers of the gender they “identify” with, rather than their biological one.
Be careful what you wish for.
But plainly, religious folks in America are decidedly freer today than they were last week.
It’s not necessary under the Constitution – and, in fact, it’s not authorized – to treat religious people as second-class citizens.
Justice Roberts is absolutely right. Its odious.
We are all freer today.