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 seven justices oversimplified the case.
Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the court's majority, said "the exclusion of Trinity Lutheran from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, exclusively because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution all the same, and can not stand". In the days before the argument in April, Missouri's Republican Gov. Eric Greitens changed the state's policy and said churches would be allowed to apply for grants. And that rule was unconstitutional.
In the majority opinion, Chief Justice Roberts acknowledged that "it is true the department has not criminalized the way Trinity Lutheran worships or told the church that it can not subscribe to a certain view of the Gospel". "Whenever religious people, organizations, see themselves being discriminated against, this case will be the controlling precedent", he added.
Both rulings appear to favor the Douglas County Choice Scholarship Program, started in 2011 but blocked by legal challenges, say proponents.
"This case involves express discrimination based on religious identity with respect to playground resurfacing", the chief justice wrote in a footnote to the majority opinion.
The majority decision narrows the gap between the free exercise and establishment clauses.
MICHAEL MCCONNELL: There's nothing wrong with a church receiving the benefits of, you know, police and fire protection and health and safety laws and the sewage.
Neither was Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who wrote a passionate dissent in which she was joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She repeatedly used piercing language to identify the unsafe simplicities of the majority's opinion. The court, she said, blinds itself to our history and leads us instead to a place where the separation of church and state is a constitutional slogan, not a constitutional commitment.
The New Jersey Supreme Court is also considering whether an Orthodox Jewish yeshiva and Presbyterian seminary can receive funds as part of a broader state bond that funded improvements to higher education institutions across the state. But in a separate opinion, Gorsuch argued that it was really a major ruling for religious liberty. RFRA (Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.). Such a process also invites government oversight of internal operations of houses of worship and religious groups.
"While claiming to stand up for churches, the court ignores their distinct nature as centers of religious exercise".
The potential for broadening what Roberts hoped would be a narrow decision is precisely what Sotomayor and Ginsburg were anxious about.
TOTENBERG: The decision was one of many handed down on Monday.
Seven justices gave a victory to TLC. The question in the case against the State of Missouri, was whether the State violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment by refusing to allow the Church to participate in a program offering rubber surfacing material to nonprofit organizations.