In a narrowly written decision, the Supreme Court held in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer that Missouri could not refuse a playground grant to a church solely due to the fact that the church is a religious institution. In so holding, the court noted that the case involved express discrimination based on religious identity with respect to such a grant, and that the court was not “address[ing] religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination.”
The court’s refusal to rule broadly will surely be a disappointment to school voucher proponents who had sought to use the dispute over playground resurfacing grants to undermine state constitutional protections for public education.
The 7–2 decision both leaves intact the Missouri constitutional provision at issue in the case insofar as it prohibits state funding of religious actions and leaves undisturbed the similar provisions of 38 other states. These “no aid” provisions were enacted to protect the common schools and have been applied for decades to ensure that resources for those schools were not diverted to private religious institutions.
The National Education Association (NEA) filed an amicus brief in the case arguing that these state constitutional provisions should not be swept aside and that a state’s independent interpretation of their constitutional provisions regarding church-state separation should be respected.
NEA applauded the Supreme Court’s decision. The Court's refusal to accept the invitation of voucher proponents to issue a broad ruling, said NEA President Lily Eskelsen García, preserves the ability of states to protect their public education system by refusing to divert public school funding to private religious schools.
“State constitutional provisions and decades of precedent protect our public education system from voucher programs. The court’s ruling is a big setback for those who want to push voucher programs that take taxpayer dollars out of public schools to divert them to private religious schools," Eskelsen García explained.
"Rather than continue the flawed policy of vouchers, let's focus on what works to provide students with the great public schools they deserve.”