US top court backs church in major religious rights case

(Reuters) Churches and other religious entities cannot be flatly denied public money even in states where constitutions explicitly ban such funding, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Monday in a major religious rights case that narrows the separation of church and state.

The justices, in a 7-2 ruling, sided with Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Missouri, which sued after being denied access to a state grant program that helps nonprofit groups buy rubber playground surfaces made from recycled tires.

Conservative Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the court’s majority, said that “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” and “cannot stand.”

Missouri’s constitution prohibits “any church, sect or denomination of religion” or clergy member from receiving state money, language that goes further than the U.S. Constitution’s separation of church and state.

Three-quarters of the U.S. states have provisions similar to Missouri’s barring funding for religious entities.

Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a dissenting opinion saying the court had swept away legal precedents that allow for limits on state funding of churches. Fellow liberal Ruth Bader Ginsburg also dissented.

“This case is about nothing less than the relationship between religious institutions and the civil government – that is between church and state. The court today profoundly changes that relationship by holding for the first time that the Constitution requires the government to provide public funds directly to a church,” Sotomayor wrote.

The ruling could help religious organizations nationwide win public dollars at least for certain purposes, such as health and safety. It also could buttress the case for using publicly funded vouchers to send children to religious schools rather than public schools. [More]