Updated at 2:05 p.m. April 18 with state attorney general's office recusing itself — A U.S. Supreme Court case over who qualifies for state grant money in Missouri should move forward, lawyers for the state and a Columbia, Missouri, church said Tuesday. Their letters to the high court came despite Gov. Eric Greitens reversing a rule last week that prevented religious organizations from receiving grant money from the Department of Natural Resources. Also Tuesday, the state attorney general's office recused itself from the case, for which oral arguments are scheduled to start Wednesday.
A news release from Attorney General Josh Hawley's office said that the office had to step aside to "preserve the Attorney General's ability to vigorously defend the Governor's policy." The release also noted that former Missouri Solicitor General will represent the Department of Natural Resources in front of the nation's high court. Hawley had been a private attorney for Trinity Lutheran Church before taking office in January, and hasn't had anything to do with the case since.
The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups say the case should be dismissed because the rule change effectively removed the controversy. The church sued the DNR over a rule that stopped religious organizations from receiving state money for recycled tires for playground surfaces. The department cited a state constitutional amendment stating that religious organizations can't receive public dollars.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Original story from April 13 —
Gov. Eric Greitens reversed a Missouri policy Thursday that had banned religious organizations from receiving certain state grants — a move that could affect a case to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court next week.
His directive, which took effect immediately and was announced through a news release, allows religious organizations to apply for state Department of Natural Resources grants. Previously, applicants had to state that they were not owned or controlled by a church.
In 2012, the Department of Natural Resources denied a Columbia, Missouri, church preschool’s request to resurface its playground through the state’s Scrap Tire Surface Material Grant. The DNR cited the state constitution, which bans money from going “directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect, or denomination of religion.”
The school sued, and that case, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, has gone to the U.S. Supreme Court. Oral arguments are expected in Washington, D.C., next week.
Though Greitens' statement said that the action isn't "expected to affect" the case, former Missouri Supreme Court Justice Mike Wolff said the high court could dismiss it because there's no longer a dispute between the church and the state regarding the policy.
“So is there anything left for the Supreme Court of the United States to decide?” Wolff asked. “I’m sure the justices will be asking that question right away. In fact, they might be asking that right now once they see the governor’s executive order or whatever it is he issued.”
Greitens’ statement included reactions from some faith leaders, including the Missouri Baptist Convention and the board of trustees’ president for Epstein Hebrew Academy in St. Louis.
"We applaud Gov. Greitens for his actions today, which we believe will benefit all Missouri children, regardless of where they attend school. Like all Missourians, we want better and safer schools for our children. Through the implementation of this policy, the governor is making that happen," said Daniel Lefton of the Epstein Hebrew Academy.
At least one other group is more critical of the governor's action.
"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, who is the executive director at the ACLU of Missouri. “This new policy compromises constitutional principles and puts religious freedom for all at risk. We’re disappointed that the governor has reversed course and chosen to blatantly ignore the Missouri Constitution’s long-standing commitment to religious freedom.”