NBC Shocked that Supreme Court Would Dare Side With a Church Over the State

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court of the United States heard the oral argument for the controversial Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer. The case tackles the idea of a separation between church and state, “The question: Can states refuse to give money to churches even when it's for something that doesn't involve worship,” noted Anchor Lester Holt during NBC Nightly News. And judging by questions asked by the justices, it appeared as though the majority might side with the church. And judging by NBC’s coverage, the network was appalled by the idea.

“When Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Missouri, heard about a program for resurfacing playgrounds using rubber from scrapped tires, it applied for a state grant at the preschool it runs,” reported Justice Correspondent Pete Williams, “But the state said ‘no’ because its constitution says ‘no state money can be given in aid of any church.’”

Williams didn’t seem to think the church’s claims of religious discrimination had any legal standing. “38 other states have laws like Missouri’s,” he noted, “Their defenders say they don't interfere with religious practices, they just choose not to subsidize them.” That’s despite the argument of David Cortman, the church’s lawyer that “The church here was not seeking anything preferable or favorable treatment, it was seeking equal treatment here.”

The NBC correspondent sat down with Barry Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State who declared that “If Trinity Lutheran wins this case, it will be a radical change from the way we've always treated religious institutions in this country.

Sounding bewildered, Williams appeared to be discouraged by questions from liberal justices that seemed to suggest that they sided with the church:

But a majority on the court seemed to side with the church including the newest justice, Neil Gorsuch. Elena Kagan said “this is a clear burden on a constitutional right,” not to be discriminated against. Stephan Breyer asked, how refusing to give the grant money is any different to declining to give churches police and fire protection, or including religious students in community-wide vaccination programs.

He did seem relieved by the fact that “Ruth Bader Ginsburg appeared to be one of the few siding with the state, saying the constitution’s ‘framers didn't want tax money used to maintain church buildings or property.’

Missouri's governor now says the state will no longer automatically turn down requests for money from churches,” Williams seemed to complain, “Even so, the court appears headed for a decision reducing the wall between church and state.

It’s not shocking that the court would side with those being discriminated against based on the fact that they practice a religion. What is shocking, is NBC’s open displeasure with the possibly that the court would side with the church, especially since the majority might include some of the liberal justices. 

Transcript below:

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NBC Nightly News
April 19, 2017
7:12:48 PM Eastern

LESTER HOLT: The U.S. Supreme Court today took up one of the most important cases in decades, on the separation of church and state. The question: Can states refuse to give money to churches even when it's for something that doesn't involve worship? We get details from our Justice Correspondent Pete Williams.

[Cuts to video]

PETE WILLIAMS: When Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Missouri, heard about a program for resurfacing playgrounds using rubber from scrapped tires, it applied for a state grant at the preschool it runs. But the state said “no” because its constitution says ‘no state money can be given in aid of any church.’

ANNETTE KIEHNE: It made us feel like we're second-class citizens, like the safety of the kids that were playing on our playground didn't matter as much as the kids that were playing on other playgrounds.

WILLIAMS: The church sued, saying the state was discriminating against religion.

DAVID CORTMAN: The church here was not seeking anything preferable or favorable treatment, it was seeking equal treatment here.

WILLIAMS: 38 other states have laws like Missouri’s. Their defenders say they don't interfere with religious practices, they just choose not to subsidize them.

BARRY LYNN: If Trinity Lutheran wins this case, it will be a radical change from the way we've always treated religious institutions in this country.

WILLIAMS: But a majority on the court seemed to side with the church including the newest justice, Neil Gorsuch. Elena Kagan said “this is a clear burden on a constitutional right,” not to be discriminated against. Stephan Breyer asked, how refusing to give the grant money is any different to declining to give churches police and fire protection, or including religious students in community-wide vaccination programs.

Samuel Alito asked, what about homeland security grants to help synagogues protect themselves against terror attacks. Ruth Bader Ginsburg appeared to be one of the few siding with the state, saying the constitution’s “framers didn't want tax money used to maintain church buildings or property.”

[Cuts back to live]

Missouri's governor now says the state will no longer automatically turn down requests for money from churches. Even so, the court appears headed for a decision reducing the wall between church and state. Lester?

HOLT: Pete Williams at the Supreme Court, thank you.

Nicholas Fondacaro
Nicholas Fondacaro
Nicholas C. Fondacaro