Trinity Lutheran Ruling Only Gets Us Closer to Equality in Education

Today’s Trinity Lutheran ruling strikes a blow against patently unequal treatment of religious Americans under state laws, an inequality felt no more acutely than in education. But it does not yet get us to where we need to be.

The huge impact of today’s ruling is that it says religious institutions cannot be barred from participating in government programs simply because they are religious. The Trinity Lutheran Church could not be ruled ineligible to participate in a grant program to improve playgrounds simply because it is a religious entity. This should have been a simple decision: It is clearly unequal treatment of religious Americans under the law to say “the reason you are ineligible for this benefit for which anyone else is eligible is that you are religious.”

This is crucial, but it is not sufficient to throw open the doors to full freedom and equality in education.

First, as Justices Thomas and Gorsuch note in their concurring opinions, the Trinity decision keeps in place the ruling in Locke v. Davey (2004) that a state could deny a student a scholarship otherwise available to him because he planned to study to become a minister. Trinity supports the rationale of denying funding for someone to learn to propagate religion. But why should someone be barred from accessing otherwise generally available funding only because the profession he wished to follow was religious? From a school choice perspective, if a goal of sending your child to a religious school with a voucher is that he or she will learn to evangelize, precedent still stands in your way.

Second, Trinity says that religious institutions cannot be excluded from funding otherwise available to other groups. It does not state that it is unconstitutional to require people to fund a single government institution—in education, de facto atheist or agnostic public schooling systems—then pay a second time for institutions that are consistent with their beliefs and values. That would be crucial to truly treat religious people equally, and to totally clear the path for school vouchers. (Tax credits, as we see again in Georgia today, are a different, more liberated story!)

Today’s ruling is a welcome move in a decidedly right direction, but it is not sufficient to achieve full equality in education.