Lost in the hubbub about the lifting of President Trump’s travel ban was a more far reaching Supreme Court decision on a religious equality issue. In a 7-2 decision, the Court sided with Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Missouri.
In the case in question, church leaders hoped to secure recycled tire rubber from the State of Missouri for its pre-school playground. Although the church’s application to resurface the playground ranked fifth out of 44 applications on objective criteria, the state rejected Trinity Lutheran’s request. Its attorneys claimed that an 1875 state constitutional amendment, known as a “Blaine amendment,” prevented the state from spending public dollars in “aid of any church.”
In the way of background, public education was largely a Protestant enterprise throughout the nineteenth century. As more and more Catholics immigrated to America, however, they began to challenge the Protestant dominance in public education, causing something of a backlash.
To maintain the Protestant dominance of the educational establishment President Ulysses S. Grant and ambitious Maine Senator James G. Blaine lobbied for a constitutional amendment to forbid the spending of public money on “sectarian” schools, sectarian understood to mean “Catholic.” Although the amendment failed to get through the Senate, some forty states passed their own “Blaine” amendments, Missouri and Kansas among them.
Chief Justice John Roberts contended that the state violated the First Amendment by denying a public benefit to an otherwise eligible petitioner solely because of the religious nature of the organization. The church’s attorneys had argued that a recycled scrap tire does not exactly represent a religious endorsement by the state, but Justice Sonya Sotomayor felt strongly enough in opposition to read her dissent from the bench.
“This case is about nothing less than the relationship between religious institutions and the civil government — that is, between church and state,” she wrote. “The Court today profoundly changes that relationship by holding, for the first time, that the Constitution requires the government to provide public funds directly to a church.” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined her in dissent. It was the rare time that the liberal bloc on the Supreme Court failed to vote in unison.
Curiously, there are no Protestants on the Supreme Court. Six of the Justices are Catholic, and three are Jewish.