Update: the U.S. Supreme Court held full oral arguments on the Trinity case on Wednesday. Justice Sonja Sotomayor was the only Justice to question whether the case was still valid in light of the Missouri governor’s decision. A ruling is expected in June.
This morning, the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing a case out of Missouri that could impact an appeal from Colorado. Or not.
Today’s hearing is on Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Carol S. Comer, Director, Missouri Department of Natural Resources. It will be among the first cases heard by new Justice Neil Gorsuch of Boulder, who took his seat on the Court Monday.
The church operates a daycare and preschool in the college town of Columbia, Missouri. Five years ago, the church applied for a grant from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources for crushed rubber tires that could be used for playground materials. The application was denied based on a Missouri constitutional amendment, known as the Blaine amendment that forbids taxpayer funding for religious purposes. The church sued and lost in the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, and then appealed to the nation’s highest court.
The Blaine amendment is in the constitutions of at least 35 states, including Missouri and Colorado, and says that public funds cannot go to religious education.
What’s unusual about today’s hearing is that it may not be exactly about the facts of the Trinity case.
Last Thursday, Missouri’s newly-elected Republican governor, Eric Greitens, announced he would reverse the state’s position regarding taxpayer funding of religious groups. Greitens said that “government bureaucrats were under orders to deny grants to people of faith who wanted to do things like make community playgrounds for kids… That’s just wrong…So, today we are changing that prejudiced policy.”
That raised a question for the Court about whether the case was still active— and today’s hearing is likely to begin with that issue. However, according to McClatchey, both the church and the Missouri Attorney General want the case to go forward, although the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a friend of the court brief defending Missouri, wants the case closed, which would put to rest any discussion about Blaine and the separation of church and state.
What does this have to do with Colorado? The Trinity case is considered a precursor to one from the Douglas County School District in Colorado.
Two years ago, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled the school district’s controversial voucher program, which would give taxpayer-funded vouchers to DougCo students to attend any school, including religious schools, as unconstitutional. The Colorado Court cited the Blaine amendment in its ruling.
The school district appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in late 2015, but the Court has not yet decided whether to hear the case.
If the Court proceeds with a full hearing on the Trinity case today, a ruling is not expected until sometime this summer.
This story will be updated after oral arguments take place.
SCOTUS, photo by NCinDC, Creative Commons, Flickr