JSPAN Urges Supreme Court to Reject Financial Aid to a Church

July 5, 2016 – Ever vigilant to protect the separation of church and state, the Jewish Social Policy Action Network (JSPAN) today submitted a brief to the Supreme Court in support of the State of Missouri, whose constitution contains a “no-aid” clause that prohibits providing public funds to religious institutions

The case arose out of a program offering grants to private organizations for the purchase of recycled tires to resurface playgrounds.  Trinity Lutheran Church applied for one of these grants to resurface the playground of a religious preschool that it operates on its premises.  When Missouri denied the grant application based on its “no-aid” clause, the Church sued the state, arguing that the denial of its grant application violated its rights under the Free Exercise and Equal Protection Clauses of the U.S. Constitution.  Following losses before a federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, the church was able to secure review by the Supreme Court. 

The Church and its allies are seeking to use this case to drastically harm church-state separation.  The constitutions of 39 states restrict public funding of religious institutions to a greater extent than the U.S. Constitution does.  Arguing that it is only trying to create a safer playground for its children, the church seeks a ruling that would force states, at least in some situations, to provide public funding to religious institutions and thus make these state constitutional provisions unenforceable, at least in certain circumstances. 

JSPAN’s efforts were led by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the lead author of the brief, and were joined by other Jewish groups such as the Anti-Defamation League, Central Conference of American Rabbis, Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Foundation of America, the Union for Reform Judaism, and Women of Reform Judaism.

The friend of the court brief explained that denying funding to the church does not violate the Constitution. The Supreme Court has long recognized that states must have some leeway to deny funding to religious institutions even when such funding may be permitted under the federal Establishment Clause.  The Free Exercise and Equal Protection Clauses were not intended to force states to fund religious institutions.  Denying public funding for improvements to church facilities used in support of religious education serves important traditional anti-establishment interests, without significantly burdening the church’s exercise of its religion.  Forcing states to fund religious institutions would subject such institutions to intrusive governmental oversight, and religious groups could be induced to compromise their beliefs to obtain public funding.