In Trinity Lutheran, One Question Question Exposed Missouri's Historical Hostility to Religion

The case traces back to when Columbia's Trinity Lutheran Church was denied the Missouri Department of Natural Resources shredded tire grant. This is because Missouri state officials cited the Blaine Amendment section from the Missouri Constitution prohibiting government aid to religious institutions. If the court strikes down Blaine Amendments generally, it could make it legal for California to grant students a voucher (or money) to use at the school of their choice.

The justices asked the parties in the case their views on whether it should proceed after Governor Eric Greitens last Thursday reversed policy and said churches can seek state funds for playgrounds to be resurfaced even though Missouri's constitution bars "any church, sect or denomination of religion" from receiving state taxpayer money.

But The American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United said the case should be over because Greitens' rule would allow the church to apply for the grant.

The church's attorney, David A. Cortman of the group Alliance Defending Freedom, countered that "if the political winds change", then Greitens' policy reversal might be undone. He noted that it's one of the first cases Neil Gorsuch will hear as a justice and his first religious freedom case on the Supreme Court, so it will be interesting to see the role he plays.

Liberal and conservative Supreme Court justices alike sounded sympathetic Wednesday to a Missouri church that says it was unfairly denied a state grant for playground improvements.

Justice Samuel Alito asked if federal programs would violate Missouri's constitution by providing homeland security grants to church facilities that might be vulnerable to terror attacks.

They said the state failed to do this because the criteria used to determine which schools receive the grants and even the grants themselves have nothing to do with religion.

That confuses granting money with policies that hinder religious rights, she said. It relied on the state's expansive version of the odious Blaine amendment to give it license to discriminate.

"We have hundreds of outstanding religious organizations all over the state of Missouri who are doing great work on behalf of kids and families every single day".

Similar provisions to the one at issue in Missouri's constitution, often called Blaine amendments, exist in almost 40 state constitutions and have been the source of challenges to state voucher and education savings account programs.

In response, Trinity Lutheran filed suit against DNR Director Sara Pauley in 2013.

This is a question of state constitutional law concerning an amendment that is clear and direct: There is to be no action by the state to financially support a religious institution.

Gorsuch, who in seminal cases as an appeals judge has forced government to accommodate religious practice whenever reasonable, should answer no - and so should his colleagues.

"I believe that this playground is part of the ministry of this church", Sotomayor said. It acknowledges that the policy could easily shift again with another change in administration. The application was denied based on a Missouri constitutional amendment, known as the Blaine amendment that forbids taxpayer funding for religious purposes.

On Tuesday, lawyers for the church and the state urged the high court to go on with the arguments.

The state has rejected these arguments stressing that the playground program has a limited availability and the reimbursement funds were not generally available to the public since only a handful of all applicants were accepted.

Sauer said Layton "will represent the Department of Natural Resources going forward in this case and in the oral argument on Wednesday".

The brief went on to argue that the barring of Trinity Lutheran was wrong since "religious entities in the program would equally further the state's goals of keeping tires out of Missouri's' landfills and fostering children's safety".

But Trinity Lutheran still calls their denial religious discrimination.

"So what's interesting here is there's already talk that the new policy is immediately going to be go challenged, and likely struck down by the Missouri Supreme Court", he said.

"In essence, the church is arguing that states can't specifically exempt religious organizations from grant programs that it chooses to provide", said Steve Vladeck, CNN Supreme Court analyst and professor of law at the University of Texas School of Law.

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