The Supreme Court on Monday ruled 7-2 in favor of a Lutheran daycare that sought state grant money for rubberized playing surfaces, scoring a victory for religious liberty proponents.
Missouri originally denied funding to Trinity Lutheran Church based on its status as a religious institution, but its defenders argued that this constituted religious discrimination. Other private schools were eligible, but Missouri's constitution has an amendment forbidding public funds for religious organizations.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion and explicitly said that denying money for religious reasons is unconstitutional.
"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 ... and cannot stand," Roberts wrote.
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented from the majority. Sotomayor read her dissent from the bench and argued that the ruling imperils the separation of church and state.
"Today's decision discounts centuries of history and jeopardizes the government's ability to remain secular," she said.
Sotomayor called the exclusion of religious organizations from public funding an "admirable tradition," but Justice Samuel Alito said that Missouri's law had its origins in "anti-Catholic bigotry." Alito pointed out during oral arguments that states passed such amendments in order to burden parochial schools.
Religious liberty advocates hailed the decision as a victory for the government neutrality on religious matters.
"This ruling is a win for religious freedom, and for limits on the power of the state," Baptist leader Russell Moore said. "We don't want a state empowered to referee between theologies and to privilege some religious ideologies over others, even if that ideology is secularism."