The U.S. Supreme Court was correct when it ruled Monday that Missouri had violated the First Amendment by denying playground improvement funds to Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia.
The narrow decision makes sense. The broader issue of church-state separation, though, remains deeply unsettled, and it deserves the attention of every American.
In 2012, Missouri disqualified Trinity Lutheran from a scrap tire program for playgrounds because the state Constitution prohibits spending taxpayer money “directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect or denomination of religion.” The church sued, claiming the decision violated its First Amendment right to free exercise of religion.
On Monday, seven members of the court concurred. “Trinity Lutheran was denied a grant simply because of what it is — a church,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote.
We agree with that view. Missouri’s constitutional ban on religious aid, known as a Blaine Amendment, is too broad. Strictly interpreted, it might prevent taxpayers from providing fire or police protection for houses of worship.
The scrap tire program was purely secular. Prohibiting participation by a church day-care center was discriminatory.
At the same time, the fundamental separation of church and state remains a critical goal. And some parts of Monday’s decision are a serious threat to that important standard.
In a footnote without legal standing, the opinion tried to limit the ruling to programs like playground safety. That wasn’t enough for Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, who argued the decision should be expanded to include taxpayer support for many other religious activities.
Dissenting Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg saw the danger. The decision could lead to an America “where separation of church and state is a constitutional slogan, not a constitutional commitment,” they wrote.
The threat is real. Some religious leaders think the decision will now make it easier to provide taxpayer funds for religious education or other direct taxpayer subsidies for faith-based institutions.
That possibility is worrisome.
The First Amendment’s separation of church from state is an essential part of self-government. It protects Americans from a state-imposed religion, but it also protects religion from state interference.
Those guarantees are in jeopardy if courts begin allowing wholesale public subsidies for faith-based institutions.
The majority struck a proper balance between the interests of religion and the government. The courts should resist bending the Supreme Court’s decision into a broader assault on the church-state barrier.