ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The Supreme Court handed down an important church-state decision today. In a 7-2 ruling, justices sided with a church in Missouri that was denied funding by the state to improve a playground. That playground is part of a day care center that the church operates. The case set up yet another test of what the separation of church and state actually means in practice. NPR's Tom Gjelten has the story.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: The First Amendment says the government can't pass any law establishing religion. Neither can it pass a law prohibiting the free exercise of religion. But when exactly does the determination not to establish religion become an effort to prohibit religion? That question has bedeviled courts for years, and it's at the heart of this case.
Trinity Lutheran Church in Missouri has its own day care center and applied for a grant under a state program to resurface the playground. But the state constitution bars the use of public funds for churches, so the application was denied. 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.
Among the parties supporting the state's rejection of the application was the ACLU. Dan Mach, who directs its freedom of religion program, says direct grants to churches amount to the unconstitutional establishment of religion.
DANIEL MACH: We argued that not only was the state of Missouri permitted not to provide direct cash grants to houses of worship but that it was required to deny those grants.
GJELTEN: But the court today disagreed. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said excluding Trinity Lutheran from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified solely because it is a church is odious to our Constitution. Among those who welcomed the ruling was Russell Moore, who heads the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.
RUSSELL MOORE: I'm glad this ruling insists that no American, whether religious or not, should be disadvantaged simply because of what they believe. The Supreme Court got this right.
GJELTEN: But Chief Justice Roberts did add a footnote that limited the ruling's significance. He said it had to do with the use of money for the playground rather than religious uses of funding more generally. Stanford law professor Michael McConnell, a former federal judge, says provisions in other state constitutions that bar direct aid to churches will not be affected by this ruling because this is about state funding for a secular purpose.
MICHAEL MCCONNELL: There's nothing wrong with a church receiving the benefits of, you know, police and fire protection and health and safety laws and the sewage. What's wrong is only when the government is subsidizing the church because it's a church.
GJELTEN: In fact, Justices Neal Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas made clear in their own opinions they would have liked today's decision to go further. Public school advocates meanwhile were somewhat relieved. They had feared that a more sweeping court ruling would have opened the way for private schools to drain state funding away from public schools. Lily Eskelsen Garcia is president of the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union.
LILY ESKELSEN GARCIA: It's very clear to us that this must be a big setback for all of those folks who thought that they could push private school and religious voucher programs based on what the Supreme Court may decide. That didn't happen today. I think that's the most important takeaway that we have.
GJELTEN: As a result, today's ruling left some questions unanswered, ensuring they will come before the court again. The ruling nevertheless disappointed those who favor a strict separation of church and state. In a statement, the ACLU said taxpayers should not be forced to foot the bill for church property. Justice Sonia Sotomayor writing forcefully in dissent said the court is leading the country to a place where separation of church and state is a constitutional slogan, not a constitutional commitment. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.