Gov. Eric Greitens announced Thursday that he is reversing a state policy aimed at preventing tax dollars from being used to aid religious groups.
Greitens’ decision comes a week before the U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments in the case of Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer. The lawsuit challenges a 2012 decision by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources to deny the Columbia church a grant to replace the gravel on its playground with softer, safer material.
The request was denied because an amendment in Missouri’s constitution states no money “shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect or denomination of religion.” It goes on to say that no grant or donation shall ever be made by “the state, or any county, city, town, or other municipal corporation, for any religious creed, church, or sectarian purpose whatever.”
Greitens has instructed the Department of Natural Resources to allow religious organizations to apply for and be eligible to receive those grants.
“We have hundreds of outstanding religious organizations all over the state of Missouri who are doing great work on behalf of kids and families every single day,” Greitens said in a statement announcing the decision. “We should be encouraging that work. So, today we are changing that prejudiced policy.”
Jeffrey Mittman, executive director at the ACLU of Missouri, said the governor was blatantly ignoring the state’s constitution.
“Gov. Greiten’s political decision to blur the lines between church and state is dangerous and directly goes against what our nation’s founders intended: to protect religious freedom by keeping it separate from government,” Mittman said in a prepared statement. “This new policy compromises constitutional principles and puts religious freedom for all at risk.”
A trial judge ruled against Trinity Lutheran, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit affirmed that ruling in a 2-1 decision. The question now before the U.S. Supreme Court is whether bans on funding religious groups in Missouri and many other states are in conflict with the U.S. Constitution’s guarantees of free speech, the rights of groups to practice their religion and equal protection under the law.
Former Attorney General Chris Koster, a Democrat, argued that the state had no choice but to deny the grant to the church.
His successor, Republican Josh Hawley, was critical of that interpretation. But upon taking office, Hawley appointed Koster’s solicitor general to argue the case before the court. Hawley said he had to recuse himself because of private practice work he’d done with the plaintiffs.
In his news release announcing the decision, Greitens included several comments from religious leaders praising the move.
“Gov. Greitens gets what our Founding Fathers understood: That faith is an integral part of our national identity,” said John Yeats, executive director of the Missouri Baptist Convention.
Greitens said he didn’t think his order would impact the case currently before the Supreme Court.