by Brian Washington
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The U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that Missouri violated the constitutional rights of a church when it denied the church’s grant application for a new playground surface. But the court’s narrow ruling represents a setback for voucher proponents, who had sought to use the dispute to undermine state constitutional protections for public education and fuel the expansion of private school vouchers on a national scale, even for religious schools.
The court said it did not “address religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination” in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia Inc. v. Comer. The 7-2 decision leaves intact the Missouri constitutional provision prohibiting state funding of religious actions and leaves undisturbed the similar provisions of 38 other states. These “no aid” provisions were enacted to protect public schools and have been applied for decades to ensure that resources for those schools were not diverted to private religious institutions.
Reacting to the decision, Lily Eskelsen GarcÍa, a Utah elementary school teacher and National Education Association president, said:
We applaud the Supreme Court’s refusal to accept the invitation of voucher proponents to issue a broad ruling that could place in jeopardy the ability of states to protect their public education system by refusing to divert public school funding to private religious schools . . .
State constitutional provisions and decades of precedent protect our public education system from voucher programs. The court’s ruling is a big setback for those who want to push voucher programs that take taxpayer dollars out of public schools to divert them to private religious schools.
The case stems from a program in Columbia, MO, that provides non-profit organizations with grants for playground rubber surfacing. Trinity Lutheran Church, which operates a pre-school and daycare, applied for money for its playground but was turned down due to the state’s constitution, which prohibits public aid going to religious institutions. The church sued.
The ruling is not likely to please voucher supporters such as President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. They have put forth a budget proposal that includes a $1.4 billion voucher program.