The U.S. Supreme Court issued a much anticipated decision today in the Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer case, ruling on whether states can exclude religious institutions from governmental benefits or funding. Public school districts across Missouri have wondered if the Court’s decision would allow the Missouri legislature to establish a state-funded voucher program for private education, impacting funding for public schools.
Trinity Lutheran Church applied for a competitive state grant available to non-profit organizations purchasing playground surfaces made from recycled tires. The State denied the church’s grant application because it is a religious organization and the Missouri Constitution prohibits state funds to be used to aid a church or religious denomination.
The church argued that the Missouri Constitution and the state’s policy violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed. While the First Amendment prohibits the government from establishing a religion, it also prohibits the government from interfering in the free exercise of religion. A majority of the justices found that the state of Missouri penalized the free exercise of religion when it withheld the grant solely because of the church’s religious identity.
One of the many arguments against vouchers is that they would be used to send state funds directly to parochial schools, in violation of the same Missouri Constitution provision debated in Trinity. But it is not clear that the Trinity decision opens up Missouri for vouchers. The Court did not strike down Article 1, §3 as unconstitutional. Further, a majority of the Court did not agree on whether this ruling was based on the facts of this case (playground surfacing only) or would apply to other government benefits.
The anti-public school rhetoric has already begun and those that push vouchers are already waving this case as proof that Missouri can and should funnel state funding away from public schools to private and parochial schools that are not accountable for student achievement or how tax dollars are spent. MSBA disagrees! Please use this as an opportunity to explain to the taxpayers in your district that this is about more than playground surfacing and that state funding for education should be reserved for public schools, run by school board members elected and accountable to the public.