In Trinity Lutheran, Supreme Court Upholds Religious Nondiscrimination

Today, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that Trinity Lutheran Church can’t be denied a state playground refurbishment subsidy simply because it’s a religious institution.

As I predicted after argument, the Court saw this as an easy case whereby the government improperly denied a public benefit because of religious status. This doesn’t mean that taxpayer funds can now be used to fund religious instruction or any other parade of horribles that was raised by Trinity Lutheran’s opponents.

Simply put, people and entities can’t be restricted from a government program simply because they’re religious. This is no different than the situation where police or fire protection is provided to houses of worship and other religious institutions.

It’s telling that Chief Justice Roberts’s attempt, via a curious footnote 3, to narrow the scope of his ruling to the facts of this case (to playgrounds?) didn’t command a majority. Justice Breyer only concurs in the judgment—he’s a pragmatist anyway—while Justices Thomas and Gorsuch specifically disclaim the disputed language. Meanwhile, Justice Sotomayor’s dissenting opinion, joined by Justice Ginsburg, seems to think that the ruling dissolves the separation of church and state altogether, footnote or no footnote.

Finally, I should note that the case doesn’t touch issues of taxpayer standing to challenge government grants or exemptions for businesses from generally applicable laws. (On the latter, stay tuned next term when the Court takes up the Masterpiece Cakeshop wedding-vendor case where a bakery declined on religious and free-speech grounds to make a cake for a same-sex ceremony.)