The denial of a playground resurfacing grant to a Lutheran school empowers religious discrimination, not constitutional principles, the U.S. Catholic bishops said in a Supreme Court brief.
“Missouri's religious discrimination not only contravenes the First Amendment, it is profoundly demeaning to people of faith,” the U.S. bishops said in their April 21 amicus curiae brief.
The brief backs Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Mo. in its suit against the Missouri government.
The church’s learning center had sought a state grant for playground resurfacing with scrap tire material to improve playground safety at its preschool and daycare center. The grant could have totaled $30,000 in aid to the school. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources rejected the grant application.
The Catholic bishops’ brief argued that constitutional law does not authorize a blanket exclusion from public programs that provide “religiously neutral benefits” for secular purposes.
“Otherwise the government could exclude religious institutions from basic public services like police and fire protection.”
The Catholic bishops said the religious school was otherwise eligible, but the State of Missouri denied it solely due to its religious affiliation.
Since 1875, the Missouri state constitution has barred public money for the direct or indirect aid of any church or any minister or teacher.
The bishops’ brief rejected the claim that such a grant would violate the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. This claim could be used as “a pretext for penalizing religious groups whose beliefs or practices diverge from government-prescribed orthodoxy,” they said.
“Official discrimination based on religion is no less invidious or stigmatizing than discrimination based on other protected traits,” the brief said. “It sends a message that religious people and their institutions are second-class citizens who deserve special disabilities and are not entitled to participate on equal terms in government programs.”
In 2015 the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a district court ruling against the school, on the grounds the U.S. constitution permits the provisions of the Missouri constitution. The Supreme Court could hear the case in its late 2016 session.
Other signatories to the Catholic bishops’ brief include the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the National Catholic Educational Association, the Salvation Army and the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America.
Many groups have filed separate briefs in favor of the Lutheran Church. These include a brief from eighteen mostly Republican-run states, The Oklahoman reports.
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