By Rick Montgomery

In what some are calling a landmark ruling for religious freedom, the U.S. Supreme Court has decided in favor of a Columbia, Mo., church that had been denied state assistance to improve its playground.

The high court's 7-2 ruling in a suit known as Trinity Lutheran of Columbia v. Comer undoes a Missouri constitutional ban on providing taxpayer-funded help to religious groups. Similar "no-aid" clauses exist in as many as 38 other state constitutions.

The court's ruling was released Monday morning.

Trinity Lutheran's preschool in 2012 applied for funds from a scrap-tire program of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, which offers grants for nonprofit organizations to buy loose rubber crumbs for covering play areas and making them less hazardous. The church's playground at the time was covered with pea gravel, and it remains so.

Though the church's application ranked high in the state's assessment for qualification, the DNR declined to award grant money to Trinity Lutheran because of an 1875 state constitutional amendment preventing tax dollars to be used for church programs. The church argued that its preschool playground was not used for religious expression.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups advocating separation of church and state countered that government should not involve itself in programs that assist religious groups. However, church-related organizations already can seek federal assistance for secular programs through the White House's Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

The justices' ruling apparently nullifies a section of the Missouri Constitution that states that "no money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect or denomination of religion."

Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley issued a statement after the court announcement:

"With today's ruling, the United States Supreme Court has made clear that the First Amendment does not permit government to discriminate against churches or religious organizations on the basis of faith," the statement said. "People of faith cannot be treated like second-class citizens."

Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens was quick to follow: "People of faith won an important victory today."

The governor in April instructed the DNR to let religious groups receive grants for playground improvements out of the scrap-tire program. But his action did not change the language of the Missouri Constitution _ a ban on church aid commonly called "the Blaine amendment" that dozens of states adopted more than a century ago.

During the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant, Republican U.S. Rep. James G. Blaine of Maine unsuccessfully sought an amendment to the federal constitution that would prohibit state governments from, among other things, funding religious schools with public money. Though Blaine's proposal never became U.S. law, nearly 40 states eventually passed measures blocking aid to church groups, including Catholic schools.

The ACLU of Missouri said Monday that the high court's ruling had narrow application and will not upend no-aid provisions in other states.

"Today's decision is disappointing because religious freedom should protect unwilling taxpayers from funding church property, not force them to foot the bill," said ACLU legal director Tony Rothert. "The court's ruling, however, is limited to the peculiar facts of the case and does not give the government unlimited authority to fund religious activity."

Kansas City-area lawyer Mike Whitehead and son Jonathan Whitehead served as co-counsel to Trinity Lutheran, whose case was argued before the Supreme Court in April by David Cortman, an attorney for the Alliance Defending Freedom. The alliance provides legal help nationwide to religious groups alleging discrimination by government. High on that list are efforts to secure school voucher programs for faith-based organizations.

Mike Whitehead had compared Trinity Lutheran's right to receiving public grants for a safer playground to all churches' entitlement to police and fire protection, courtesy of taxpayers.

"The court held that denying a generally available public benefit solely on account of religious identity violates the free exercise of religion," Whitehead said.

The newest justice, Neil Gorsuch, issued a concurring opinion underlining that point. He wrote that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution "guarantees the free exercise of religion, not just the right to inward belief (or status)."

The court's two dissenting members were Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor.

Trinity Lutheran declined comment Monday, referring media questions to the Alliance Defending Freedom.

The alliance's senior counsel Erik Stanley told The Kansas City Star that the ruling would not likely settle the debate on tax-supported school vouchers, which "I would expect to be resolved more on a case-by-case basis." But the court made clear that "any existing government program that excludes religious programs based only on their religious status will not be allowed," he said.

"This is not just limited to playground improvement programs," Stanley added.

Missouri's scrap-tire program at the core of the lawsuit aims to reduce tire dumpings in landfills and issue grants to not-for-profits to make play areas cushier with chopped-up rubber. The state approved 14 such projects in the year that the Columbia church was denied.

A trial judge ruled against Trinity Lutherans' suit to obtain a grant, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit affirmed that decision with a 2-1 ruling.

(c)2017 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)