The Supreme Court ruled Monday that churches have the same right as other charitable groups to seek state money for new playground surfaces and other nonreligious needs.
But the justices stopped short of saying whether the ruling applies to school voucher programs that use public funds to pay for private, religious schooling.
By a 7-2 vote, the justices sided with Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Missouri, which had sought a state grant to put a soft surface on its preschool playground.
Chief Justice John Roberts said for the court that the state violated the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment by denying a public benefit to an otherwise eligible recipient solely on account of its religious status. He called it "odious to our Constitution" to exclude the church from the grant program, even though the consequences are only "a few extra scraped knees."
The case arose from an application the church submitted in 2012 to take part in Missouri's scrap-tire grant program, which reimburses the cost of installing a rubberized playground surface made from recycled tires. The money comes from a fee paid by anyone who buys a new tire. The church's application to resurface the playground for its preschool and daycare ranked fifth out of 44 applicants.
But the state's Department of Natural Resources rejected the application, pointing to the part of the state constitution that says "no money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect or denomination of religion."
A recycled scrap tire is not religious, the church said in its Supreme Court brief. "It is wholly secular," the church said.
Justice Sonya Sotomayor took the rare step of reading her dissent from the bench, saying the ruling weakens America's longstanding commitment to separation of church and state.
"This case is about nothing less than the relationship between religious institutions and the civil government — that is, between church and state," she wrote, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. "The Court today profoundly changes that relationship by holding, for the first time, that the Constitution requires the government to provide public funds directly to a church."
More than 30 other states have constitutional provisions similar to Missouri's, though some of those already permit churches to take part in grant programs for nonreligious purposes. In the days before the argument in April, Missouri's Republican Gov. Eric Greitens changed the state's policy and said churches would be allowed to apply for grants.
Some religious groups cheered the decision, which was closely watched for the effect it may have on school voucher programs. But in a carefully worded footnote, Roberts said the ruling was limited and did not address "religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination."
Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch wrote separately to say they would not have limited the ruling to playground resurfacing or related issues that involve children's safety or health.
"The general principles here do not permit discrimination against religious exercise — whether on the playground or anywhere else," Gorsuch said.
Proponents of school vouchers said they hope the ruling lays the groundwork for a future decision on whether states can let parents choose to send their children to religious schools through publicly funded programs.
Michael Bindas, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice, said the principle of "religious neutrality" applies "whether the government is enabling schools to resurface their playgrounds or empowering parents to direct their children's education."
Civil liberties groups called the ruling a blow to the principle of church-state separation.
"This ruling threatens to open the door to more taxpayer support for religion, which is at odds with our history, traditions and common sense," said Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.