SCOTUS Decision in Trinity Lutheran Sets the Stage for Expanded School Choice
In a 7-2 decision on Monday, the United States Supreme Court issued a ruling in favor of educational and religious liberty in the highly anticipated case Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer. The Court concluded states do not have the power to bar religious institutions from receiving state aid for a neutral or secular purpose. This ruling could be a major step forward for education choice and opportunity.
In 2012, Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Missouri, applied for a grant from the Missouri State Department of Natural Resources that would provide the church learning center with tire rubber for the school’s playground. The school would have used the rubber to repave the ground to make it safer for students to play on.
Although the learning center at Trinity had an otherwise-strong application, Missouri denied Trinity Lutheran the grant, with the state citing an amendment to the Missouri Constitution that says, “No money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect, or denomination of religion.” This amendment, called the Blaine Amendment, is included in 38 other state constitutions in addition to Missouri, and is repeatedly used to combat school choice and educational liberty.
Many school choice opponents have tried to use Blaine Amendments to fight state programs, and as a result, have inhibited parents from choosing the best schools for their children, whether public or private. However, in this decision, the Court found that “the exclusion of Trinity Lutheran from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, solely because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution all the same, and cannot stand.”
While the Court did not directly rule on the constitutionality of Missouri’s Blaine Amendment, it is clear that the argument for it and similar amendments is shaky and could be vulnerable to First Amendment challenge in the future. Students should not be excluded from school choice programs due to their desire to attend a religious institution, and such exclusion may violate the First Amendment of the Constitution.
States may now have an easier time implementing private school choice programs, and news of the decision could also buoy education choice advocates and lawmakers who have been wary of litigation. Trinity Lutheran has the potential to set the stage for an even brighter future for education reform in the United States.