The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that states cannot bar churches and other religious organizations from receiving taxpayer-funded grants for programs that have non-religious intent.
In the 7-2 ruling, the justices sided with Missouri’s Trinity Lutheran Church, which had been denied state funding for a playground improvement project.
The church, which operates a preschool and daycare, sued the state of Missouri after being ruled ineligible for a state-funded program that helps nonprofit groups buy rubber playground surfaces made from recycled tires.
The program’s administrators denied the application citing the state’s constitution which prohibits aid from going either directly or indirectly to religious programs.
Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the court’s majority, said “the exclusion of Trinity Lutheran from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, solely because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution all the same, and cannot stand.”
In a footnote, he underscored the limitations of the case saying it involved “express discrimination based on religious identity with respect to playground resurfacing” and that it “did not address religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination.”
Despite the annotation, supporters of school choice saw the case as a victory that could possibly pave the way for vouchers to be used at religious schools.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos praised the ruling saying that it “sends a clear message that religious discrimination in any form cannot be tolerated in a society that values the First Amendment.”
“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,” she said in a statement posted on the Department of Education’s website.
DeVos is a strong proponent of school voucher programs, which use public money to help low-income students attend private schools, including religious ones.
Critics say providing government funds to private charter schools could undermine the public school system and hurt schools serving poor neighborhoods. Supporters say charter schools provide students from poor areas with a better choice.