July/August 2015 Church & State | People & Events

Missouri officials can’t be forced to give grant money to a church seeking public funds to refurbish a playground, a federal court ruled recently.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found in May that Trinity Church of Columbia does not have a constitutional right to public funds. The church, which is affiliated with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, operates a Christian preschool on its grounds. It filed suit after the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) rejected its application for a grant under a program that gives qualifying organizations tax money to purchase recycled tires for resurfacing playgrounds.

The DNR informed Trinity Church that the Missouri Constitution expressly forbids churches and other religious organizations from receiving any form of state aid. It also bans the state from providing assistance to religious schools. Trinity Church argued that these constitutional provisions amounted to discrimination on the basis of religion, but the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri rejected those arguments.

The appeals court ruling upholds this earlier finding. Its decision notes, “[I]t is apparent that Trinity Church seeks an unprecedented ruling – that a state constitution violates the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause if it bars the grant of public funds to a church.”

Americans United applauded the ruling.

“Taxpayers should not be forced to subsidize religious institutions,” Americans United Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser told the Columbia Daily Tribune. “The court correctly recognized that.”

A spokesman for the church, which argued in its appeal that it has a First Amendment right to access the funds, said church-state separation should be ignored because the state is disposing of the old tires anyway.

“It’s ridiculous when Missouri’s getting rid of tires but they couldn’t give them to us because Missouri can’t give money to a church,” said Phil Glenn, congregation chairman for Trinity Lutheran.

Americans United and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case. The brief urged the appeals court to uphold the denial of the aid, arguing in part, “In restricting the limited resources of its tire-mulch program to non-parochial schools, the State is merely obeying the requirements of the Missouri Constitution, and those dictates are plainly lawful under the U.S. Constitution.”

The brief was prepared by attorneys Heather L. Weaver and Daniel Mach of the ACLU, with input from Luchenitser. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty represented Trinity Church in the Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Pauley case.

The Daily Tribune reported that the church’s attorneys are considering an appeal.