Separation of Church and State? Supreme Court Oks Use of Taxpayer Money to Improve School Playground

On Monday, the Supreme Court of United State ruled that the state of Missouri violated a church’s right to freely exercise religion by denying it a state-funded grant to make improvements to the church’s school playground. The Supreme Court rationalized that the state was penalizing freedom of religion in not granting the funds.

When the decision was handed down, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said that the Supreme Court’s ruling “marks a great day for the Constitution and sends a clear message that religious discrimination in any form cannot be tolerated in a society that values the First Amendment.” DeVos added, “We should all celebrate the fact that programs designed to help students will no longer be discriminated against by the government based solely on religious affiliation.”

Some are worried that the ruling on Monday is a step toward allowing taxpayer funds to be used in religious schools more broadly, not just for funding some playground repairs. Justices Sotomayor and Ginsberg dissented arguing that there is not a useful distinction between a church’s facilities and the religious mission of the institution itself. In their view, even a playground or other facility can be used to advance a religious mission.

Justice Sotomayor wrote, “If this separation [of church and state] means anything, it means that the government cannot … tax its citizens and turn that money over to houses of worship. The Court today blinds itself to the outcome this history requires and leads us instead to a place where separation of church and state is a constitutional slogan, not a constitutional commitment.”

So what does this mean for you and your children? Well, it appears that there is a weakening of the separation between church and state. Secretary DeVos, who is a supporter of voucher programs and who herself has attended religious schools, could have an opening to pursue school choice plans that allow public money to go to private religious schools. But the Supreme Court did not go this far to say that expanding vouchers to religious schools would be permitted.

Some religious schools have had a history of discriminating against LGBTQ children, and if public money is funnelled to such schools, we can expect to see all kinds of court battles. The ruling on Monday marks the first time that the court has said that the government has to fund a religious organization.

What do you think?

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