Supreme Court playground ruling feeds school voucher debate

The Associated Press

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and other proponents of school voucher programs are praising a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said a Lutheran church was wrongly denied a state grant for its preschool playground. But opponents say the ruling is far from an endorsement of the use of public money for religious schools.

The court, by a 7-2 vote, sided with Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Missouri, which had sought a state grant to put a soft surface on its preschool playground.

“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,” DeVos said after the justices ruled Monday that Missouri violated the First Amendment in denying the grant.

The Columbia, Missouri, church had sought the grant under a state program that reimburses nonprofit organizations that install playground surfaces made from recycled tires. The Department of Natural Resources rejected the application because the state constitution prohibits the use of public money “in aid of any church, sect or denomination of religion.”

The church’s challenge was watched by both sides of the debate over whether states can let parents choose to send their children to religious schools through publicly funded programs.

Teachers unions, which oppose vouchers as diverting money from public schools, said the narrow ruling dealt a setback to voucher proponents by leaving intact the state’s constitutional provision that prohibits state funding of religious actions.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten pointed to a footnote by Chief Justice John Roberts that said the court did not address “religious uses of funding.”

“The Supreme Court’s Trinity decision cannot be read as opening the door for states to promote religion or expand vouchers,” Weingarten said.

But the pro-school choice Center for Education Reform said that even without reviewing the constitutionality of Missouri’s prohibition on the use of state funds at religious schools, the justices had bolstered the choice movement by condemning the denial of a public benefit to an otherwise eligible recipient solely on the basis of its religious identity.

The Orthodox Jewish group Agudath Israel of America said the ruling could provide support for the argument that it would be discriminatory to not allow publicly funded tuition vouchers to be used for schooling at a religious institution.

“That puts somewhat of an onus on the state to make sure that if we’re going to have a program and we’re saying that it’s open to everyone, it’s intended to serve all the kids in our state, then it should be a program … that includes kids that go to private and religious schools,” said the group’s Washington director, Rabbi Abba Cohen.

Richard Katskee, the legal director at the organization Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said that while the ruling does not strike down existing constitutional provisions against governments funding religion, “it probably will encourage more legal challenges over those provisions.”””

In this Jan. 26, 2016 file photo, the empty playground at Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Mo. The Supreme Court has ruled that churches have the same right as other charitable groups to seek state money for new playground surfaces and other non-religious needs. The justices on Monday, June 26, 2017, ruled 7-2 in favor of Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Missouri. The church sought a grant to put a soft surface on its preschool playground, but was denied any money even though its application was ranked fifth out of 44 submissions.

Annaliese Nurnberg/Missourian via AP

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