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.”