Missouri reverses course on aid to religious organizations (UPDATED)
on Apr 14, 2017 at 10:54 am
Next week the justices are scheduled to hear oral argument in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, in which a Missouri church is challenging the state’s denial of its application for a grant to resurface the playground used by its daycare center. In rejecting the church’s application, the state relied on a provision in its constitution that bars state funds from going to churches. Trinity Lutheran argues that its exclusion from the playground program violates the Constitution. (A more extensive preview of the case can be found here.)
The lower courts ruled for the state, and in January 2016 the Supreme Court agreed to review the dispute. However, the justices put off scheduling the case for oral argument for over a year – perhaps (although there is no way to know) to allow a nine-justice court to hear the case. Justice Neil Gorsuch will be on the bench when the justices return from their recess next week, but a recent announcement by the state casts some doubt on whether the justices will actually decide the case on the merits. Yesterday Missouri Governor Eric Greitens – who took office earlier this year – announced that the state had changed the policy at issue in this case to allow the state’s Department of Natural Resources to give grants to religious groups to fund not only recycled playground surfaces but also school field trips to state parks and programs to promote recycling and erosion control.
A press release issued by the governor’s office suggested that the decision would not affect Trinity Lutheran’s case, because the state had already made the decision to deny the church funding. However, interest groups opposing the church have countered that the governor’s decision has rendered the church’s case moot, because Trinity Lutheran can now apply for and receive funding for the playground program. The justices, of course, will ultimately decide whether the case can go on, and they are likely to spend at least part of next week’s oral argument exploring that question.
[UPDATE: This afternoon the court instructed the two sides to “submit their views on whether this case is affected by the press release relating to access to Missouri grant programs issued by Governor Greitens” yesterday. The letter briefs requested by the court are due at noon on Tuesday, April 18 – less than 24 hours before the court is scheduled to hear oral argument in the case.]