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The First Amendment & Common Sense, Victorious at the U.S. Supreme Court
   Wednesday, June 28, 2017   at   12:49 PM

In Still Silent No More our founder and president, Pastor Rod Parsley, wrote eloquently about how the meaning of the noble phrase "separation of church and state" has been twisted into something best suited for Opposite Day.

Thomas Jefferson, who is credited with coining the phrase "separation of church and state," expressed it as part of a commitment to keep the government from meddling with the American church. It’s become, instead, a polemic bigots use to warn of a "theocracy," whatever that is, any time people of faith want to participate in the Republic.

The U.S. Supreme Court reclaimed at least part of the true meaning of "separation of church and state" this week, and reinforced the First Amendment in a 7–2 decision.

The ramifications of Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer are unknown and unknowable. But it’s heartening to know that amidst a government that seems to have lost all manner of common sense, some of the city’s designated adults are seated at U.S. Supreme Court.

The case involved a state grant program, with the money used to purchase ground–up rubber from recycled tires. Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Mo., applied for the grant in 2012, in hopes of resurfacing the playground at the child–care center it operates.

The church qualified for the grant, but was denied funds because of a clause in the Missouri Constitution that forbid state dollars to go to any religious organization for any reason — even, administrators of the state Department of Natural Resources determined, a clearly secular one.

The clause is commonly known as a "Blaine amendment." It exists in the constitutions of more than 30 states and dates back to a virulently anti–Catholic period of our nation’s history in the 19th century. The state’s newest governor has since directed that churches not be disqualified from programs like this.

Two federal courts dismissed the church’s case before the Supreme Court accepted it. The death of Justice Antonin Scalia in early 2016 delayed the hearing of the case until this April, shortly after Justice Neil Gorsuch replaced Scalia.

The high court’s 7–2 ruling is, on the surface, a decisive victory for people and institutions of faith. Those who say the case means that the Church can no longer be excluded from public life are correct, to a degree.

But a close look at the ruling suggests that the justices may have chosen to interpret the law narrowly. It’s not at all obvious from the justices’ opinions that a majority would look as favorably upon other public initiatives, such as school vouchers for Christian and other religious schools, as they did for what is essentially a children’s safety program.

The main opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts and a concurring opinion written by Justice Steven Breyer suggest a narrow approach. Roberts specifically distinguished the case from a previous case, Locke v. Davey, in which a student who had qualified for state scholarship funds was denied the money because he proposed to use it for a seminary education. In that case, Roberts noted, the funds were denied because of what a scholarship recipient proposed to do with the funds. Trinity Lutheran was denied funds it had otherwise qualified for because of what it was, a church, and that is what Roberts found impermissible in the current case.

Concurring opinions written by Justice Gorsuch and Justice Clarence Thomas suggest they favor a wider role for public dollars in support of faith–based initiatives. So it’s impossible to know the broad applications of this ruling until and unless the court takes other cases that would better define the role of public dollars and private faith–based organizations. Those cases will certainly materialize in the years to come, and they should.

Historians may well look at Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer as the beginning of when governments stopped treating the Church as being unworthy of participating in public life. We hope that’s the case. We’re cautiously optimistic that the correct legal reasoning the majority displayed here manifests further in the years to come — perhaps as soon as the court’s next term, which begins Oct. 2.


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