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The U.S. Supreme Court has wrapped up its current term with a draft of opinion, some with potentially historic ramifications. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: School choice advocates rejoiced Monday when the Supreme Court ruled that taxpayer-funded grants for playgrounds could not be denied to a church-run school. The court's ruling came in the case of the Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Mo., which operates a preschool learning center as part of its ministry. In 2012, the church applied for a grant from the state of Missouri to rubberize its playground surface. It lost out on the award, even though it was otherwise qualified. The rejection was based on a Missouri constitutional provision which, like those in some 36 other states, bars state aid to religious schools.
On Monday, the Supreme Court upended the heart of those provisions. Writing for the Court, Chief Justice John Roberts said that the exclusion of Trinity Lutheran from the grant program solely because it's a church is quote "odious to our Constitution and cannot stand." By denying a benefit to a church school because of its avowedly religious character, he said, the state is penalizing the free exercise of religion guaranteed by the Constitution.
The overall vote was 7-2, with the majority split about how far it wanted to go. Two justices, Gorsuch and Thomas, wanted to go further, requiring taxpayer funds to go to religious schools for most purposes. Five justices, including the chief justice, sought to limit the decision. And two justices, Sotomayor and Ginsburg, dissented. Sotomayor, who attended parochial schools for most of her childhood, took the rare step of reading her dissent from the bench, calling the decision radical. The court, she said, blinds itself to our history and leads us instead to a place where the separation of church and state is a constitutional slogan, not a constitutional commitment.
School choice advocates have for decades sought to funnel public funds to private religious schools, only to be stymied by state constitutional provisions like Missouri's, known as Blaine Amendments. University of Missouri law professor Carl Esbeck, who filed a brief in the case on behalf of the National Association of Evangelicals, said there would be immediate consequences in other states where such challenges are pending. Among them - Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, New Hampshire and Florida.
CARL ESBECK: Blaine Amendments are now contrary to the Free Exercise Clause in light of the ruling today, so that's pretty profound.
TOTENBERG: But Andrew Pincus, who filed a brief on behalf of various religious and civil rights organizations, was more cautious.
ANDREW PINCUS: I think it's a big step, but I'm not sure that it really opens the door that widely. What it does do, for the first time, is say that there's constitutional protection for direct money grants to religious entities. And that's something the court has never said before.
TOTENBERG: The decision was one of many handed down on Monday. In a decision that President Trump hailed as a victory, the court said it would review his controversial travel ban, hearing arguments in October on lower court decisions that blocked the order in its entirety. In an unsigned opinion, six of the justices rejected the Trump administration's argument that it should be allowed to ban all foreigners from six mainly Muslim countries - Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, Iran and Libya.
Instead, the justices said the government should grant visas to people who have a bonafide relationship to families and individuals or entities, including schools and businesses, in the U.S. But the court said that for now, individuals from the designated countries who have no such formal or documented relationship may be excluded for the 90 days specified in the Trump order. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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