On April 19, 2017, the Court heard arguments in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, and the decision could be used in an attempt to erode the principle of church-state separation — the foundation of religious freedom.
Q. What is this case about?
A. On April 19, 2017, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer (previously known as Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Pauley). Trinity Lutheran sought money from the state to purchase scrap-tire material to resurface its playground. State officials denied the church’s application for funding because a provision in the Missouri Constitution does not allow taxpayer dollars to fund churches.
If Trinity Lutheran wins, state and local governments will be required to give taxpayer funds to houses of worship. Currently, most state constitutions safeguard religious freedom by ensuring that the government cannot do this exact thing.
Q. Why is this important?
A. This case is importance because the best way to protect the independence of faith communities and freedom of conscience for all is to preserve the existing protections that ensure tax dollars do not fund houses of worship.
Freedom of Conscience: Freedom of conscience means that you can decide which religion to follow—if any—without government coercion or interference. When the government uses our tax dollars to pay for religious ministries or the upkeep of a house of worship, it violates our freedom of conscience because we should each get to decide for ourselves whether and how our money will support religion.
Protecting Faith Communities from Government Discrimination: The government shouldn’t get to pick and choose which faith communities are worthy of taxpayer funding. Discrimination is the inevitable result, and minority faiths and smaller, less popular houses of worship are the most likely to be left out.
Freedom for Faith Communities: The independence of faith communities allows them to pursue their own ministries and speak out about the issues of the day to policymakers without interference. If houses of worship become dependent on government money, they also may lose this freedom.
Q: How will this case affect me?
A: The U.S. Constitution and almost three-fourths of state constitutions currently protect religious freedom by not allowing taxpayer funds to go to houses of worship. These protections apply equally to all and do not single out any set of beliefs or particular denominations.
A win for Trinity Lutheran is a serious threat to this long-established principle—and not just in the state of Missouri. Other states with these religious-freedom protections in their constitutions will lose these safeguards. This could open up the houses of worship in your state to government discrimination, and undercut your freedom of conscience by not allowing you to decide for yourself whether and how your money will support religion.
From the very beginning, our nation’s laws have ensured that the government cannot fund religion. Religious freedom is a fundamental American value, and the founding generation believed that using tax dollars to fund houses of worship was a serious infringement on basic human rights.
Q. How is Americans United involved in this case?
A. Americans United, along with other religious and civil-rights organizations, submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in this case. Our brief explains that the state constitutional provisions that ensure that taxpayer money does not fund houses of worship protect religious freedom. You can read our brief here and AU Legal Director Richard Katskee’s SCOTUSblog post on the case here.