JEFFERSON CITY • Days before the U.S. Supreme Court is due to hear a pivotal case over whether Missouri can use public money to aid religious institutions, Gov. Eric Greitens announced that he's instructed the Department of Natural Resources to allow such organizations to apply for and receive DNR grants.
“Before we came into office, government bureaucrats were under orders to deny grants to people of faith who wanted to do things like make community playgrounds for kids. That’s just wrong," Greitens said in a statement. "So today we are changing that prejudiced policy."
He's referring to a landmark case that originated in Columbia, Mo., when Trinity Lutheran Church applied for a state grant for its preschool playground in 2012.
The church was denied by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources on the grounds that the grant, which allowed recipients to use rubber from repurposed tires to build safer playscape surfaces, couldn't be awarded to a religious organization.
They cited what's known as the "Blaine Amendment" in Missouri's constitution, which bars public money from going to churches:
“That no money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect or denomination of religion, or in aid of any priest, preacher, minister or teacher thereof, as such; and that no preference shall be given to nor any discrimination made against any church, sect or creed of religion, or any form of religious faith or worship.”
Depending on how the nation’s high court rules in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, Blaine Amendments could be called into question in Missouri and more than 30 other states.
But the court hasn't yet heard the case. Oral arguments aren't set to begin until April 19.
"These grants are for non-religious programs. We are confident that this policy is in line with the state and federal constitution," said Parker Briden, a spokesman for Greitens.
Greitens doesn't expect his action to affect the Trinity Lutheran case because it in involves a DNR decision that became final years before his administration took office, according to Thursday's release.
Chad Flanders, a law professor at Saint Louis University, said that the governor’s actions add another layer of intrigue around the Trinity case. But he said it probably doesn’t head off the Supreme Court case next week because that suit is based on a previous act by the state of Missouri that the church claimed was discrimination against religion, and Trinity Lutheran ”still doesn’t have the recycled tires it wants.”
Greitens could also invite a fresh lawsuit based on the Blaine Amendment because of his new actions Thursday.
“What this probably leads to is a suit by a taxpayer claiming that the new projects being funded are a violation of Missouri’s state constitution,” Flanders said.
Organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri have already expressed outrage, saying Greitens chose to "blatantly ignore" Missouri's constitution.
“Gov. Greitens' political decision to blur the lines between church and state is dangerous and directly goes against what our nation’s founders intended: to protect religious freedom by keeping it separate from government,” said Jeffrey Mittman, executive director at the ACLU of Missouri. “This new policy compromises constitutional principles and puts religious freedom for all at risk."
But Greitens has already instructed the DNR to move forward on applications from three religious schools who applied for funding for field trips to state parks.
Groups like the Missouri Catholic Conference praised Greitens' move, having long argued that the state’s Blaine Amendment is rooted in religious bigotry.
“The education and safety of our children should be considered foremost in these grant programs, not the type of school the children attend," said Mike Hoey, its executive director.
Regarding the case before the Supreme Court, religious groups also insist that a scrap rubber program is neutral and in no way amounts to a state government endorsement of a religion.
Attorney General Josh Hawley, a Republican who spoke out against the state’s Blaine Amendment while running for office, has recused himself from the case.
James Layton, who served as solicitor general under Hawley’s Democratic predecessor, Chris Koster, will be making oral arguments to the U.S. Supreme Court next week.
Even as its chief executive and top law enforcement officer publicly side with the church, the state will contend that Missouri’s constitution clearly prohibited tax money from being awarded to Trinity Lutheran.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Chuck Raasch contributed to this story from Washington, D.C.