Trinity Lutheran argued that Missouri was violating the free exercise clause of the First Amendment (“no law … prohibiting the free exercise of religion”) by declaring the church’s preschool ineligible for a grant program—which helped cover the cost of safer playground surfaces made of recycled tires—just because the school was affiliated with the church.
On the other side, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources deployed the establishment clause of the First Amendment (“no law respecting the establishment of religion”) to defend its decision not to provide aid directly to a church, even if used for a secular purpose. This prohibition has been codified in Missouri and 30 other states under laws known as “Blaine Amendments.” Missouri’s bars state funds from going “directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect, or denomination of religion.”
While Roberts wrote that the consequences of Missouri’s rejection were likely “a few extra scraped knees,” he considered the discriminatory policy “odious to our Constitution all the same.” He defended the rights of religious institutions to get their fair share of public benefits.
By siding with the church, the Supreme Court sets a precedent against a strict interpretation of state-level Blaine Amendments, thereby shifting the prospects for religious institutions’ involvement in public programs.