Read the SCOTUS Blog here.
Trinity Lutheran Church applied for Missouri's Scrap Tire Grant Program so that it could provide a safer playground for children who attend its daycare and for neighborhood children who use the playground after hours--a purely secular matter. But the state denied Trinity's application solely because it is a church. The Eighth Circuit affirmed that denial by equating a grant to resurface Trinity's playground using scrap tire material with funding the devotional training of clergy. The Eighth Circuit's decision was not faithful to this Court's ruling in Locke v. Davey, 540 U.S. 712 (2004), and deepened an existing circuit conflict. Three lower courts--two courts of appeals and one state supreme court--interpret Locke as justifying the exclusion of religion from a neutral aid program where no valid Establishment Clause concern exists. In contrast, two courts of appeals remain faithful to Locke and the unique historical concerns on which it relied.
According to the court filings, the Missouri DNR had ranked the Trinity proposal as fifth best out of 44 applications. The state rejected the application solely because the applicant is a church. That creates the kind of clean factual record that the Supreme Court likes.
This is from Missouri's brief opposing Supreme Court review: "Although on other criteria Trinity Lutheran ranked high among the 44 applicants, the Department declined to award a grant to Trinity Lutheran because the grant would have been 'money ... taken from the public treasury ... in aid of [a] church.'" In other words, the application was denied solely because the applicant was a church.
The Court took this case in part because there was a split in the circuit court rulings -- different appellate courts ruled differently to apply the standard. It could just be that the Court
took this case to overturn the ruling below.
more thing is worth noting. Although Missouri is defending its law, the
state may not be adverse to losing this case. The state will receive needed clarity regarding the law in either case. Further, the fact that the state told the congregation that it was being excluded for no
reason other than its being a church is significant and made it easy for the church to bring a clean
constitutional challenge. The state could have clouded its decision and refrained from admitting that the denial was due to the fact that the applicant was a church and that the state was so frank in its admission indicates perhaps the state is open to an interpretation of the law more friendly to churches.