The Supreme Court ruled Monday that religious institutions may not be excluded from state programs with a secular intent — in this case, making playgrounds safer.
However the court framed its decision narrowly, declining to say how far states can go with school choice programs like vouchers being pushed by President Donald Trump as part of a sweeping school choice agenda.
In a decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the court ruled 7-2 that Missouri wrongly denied a church a state grant “simply because of what it is — a church.”
The ruling did not address the constitutionality of provisions in 39 states, including Missouri, that bar public money from supporting religious organizations. Those provisions, known as Blaine Amendments, have been an obstacle to many school voucher programs, which channel taxpayer money to help low-income families pay tuition for private schools, many of which are run by religious groups.
Martin West, a Harvard education professor, wrote on Twitter that the opinion won’t keep states from denying vouchers to religious schools based on Blaine Amendments.
"But it appears as if the votes could be there to do so in a subsequent case,” he wrote.
Advocates for separation of church and state called the ruling a blow to the separation of church and state.
“This ruling threatens to open the door to more taxpayer support for religion, which is at odds with our history, traditions and common sense,” Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said in a statement.
Roberts is explicit in a footnote to his decision that “this case involves express discrimination based on religious identity with respect to playground resurfacing. We do not address religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination.”
Justices Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas took issue with the footnote, arguing it makes the ruling that they agreed with too vague.
"I worry that some might mistakenly read it to suggest that only ‘playground resurfacing’ cases, or only those with some association with children’s safety or health, or perhaps some other social good we find sufficiently worthy, are governed by the legal rules recounted in and faithfully applied by the Court’s opinion," Gorsuch wrote. "Such a reading would be unreasonable for our cases are ‘governed by general principles, rather than ad hoc improvisations.’"
The court could take up another case out of Colorado challenging a state voucher program to settle the broader issue.