The public benefit, in this case, was grant money from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources to subsidize pour-in-place rubber surfaces for playgrounds. Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Missouri applied for a grant to resurface its preschool playground from pea gravel to the softer rubber surface. Trinity Lutheran’s application ranked fifth out of more than a dozen submitted that year, but the Department denied the application solely because a church operated the preschool. By a 7-2 vote, the Court concluded that the Department’s actions violated the church’s rights under the Free Exercise Clause.
“The Supreme Court’s ruling makes it clear that States cannot force churches to choose between their ecclesiastical missions and obtaining generally available public benefits,” said Attorney General Reyes. “Churches need not forswear their religious identities to receive generally available public benefits, such as fire or police protection, access to public utilities — or funds for safe playground surfaces. I applaud the Court’s ruling on this important Free Exercise Clause issue.”
The decision, with the majority opinion authored by Chief Justice John Roberts and joined by Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Samuel Anthony Alito Jr., and Elena Kagan, can be found here (PDF). Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented, in an opinion joined by Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil M. Gorsuch joined the opinion in full, except for a footnote. Justice Stephen G. Breyer concurred in the judgment and wrote a separate opinion.
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