Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer

Last modified 2017.06.26

  • Status Closed
  • Type Amicus
  • Court U.S. Court of Appeals, U.S. Supreme Court
  • Issues Religious Minorities, Taxpayer Funding of Religion

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources Solid Waste Management Program awards competitive grants to qualifying organizations to purchase recycled tire rubber, which is used to resurface playgrounds. In order to comply with the No-Aid Clause of the Missouri Constitution, the program does not award grants to organizations owned or operated by “a church, sect, or denomination of religions.”

Trinity Lutheran Child Center—a religious pre-school operated by Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia—applied to participate in the grant program in early 2012. In May 2012, its application was denied, as required by the policy against providing state aid to religious organizations. In January 2013, Trinity Lutheran filed suit against the director of the program, claiming that exclusion of religious entities violates various provisions of the federal and state constitutions.

The trial court ruled against Trinity Lutheran, holding that the Missouri No-Aid Clause prohibits churches from participating in the grant program, and that this exclusion of religious entities did not violate the federal Constitution. Trinity Lutheran appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.

In June 2014, Americans United—along with the ACLU and its Missouri affiliate—filed an amicus brief in support of the policy denying state aid to religious organizations. Our brief refuted allegations, made in other briefs, that Missouri’s No-Aid Clause was adopted out of anti-Catholic animus. We argue that the historical evidence fails to support that allegation, and that the No-Aid Clause does not violate the U.S. Constitution.

The 8th Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision in May 2015, finding that the federal Constitution does not compel states to include religious institutions in grant programs such as this one.  It also agreed with the trial court that Missouri’s No-Aid Clause forbade giving the grant to Trinity Lutheran.

Trinity Lutheran filed a petition for certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court in November 2015. The Court granted certiorari in January 2016, to answer “[w]hether the exclusion of churches from an otherwise neutral and secular aid program violates the Free Exercise and Equal Protection Clauses when the state has no valid Establishment Clause concern.”

In July 2016, Americans United, along with allied organizations, filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court. We argued that states may, consistent with the First Amendment, avoid the risk of impermissible government entanglement with religion by excluding churches from otherwise-neutral aid programs.

The Court heard oral arguments on April 19, 2017.

On June 26, 2017, the Court held that Trinity Lutheran Church can’t be excluded from a taxpayer-funded grant program that makes playgrounds safer by paying to resurface them with recycled tires. In a 7-2 opinion, the justices held that a church could not be excluded from this general government benefit simply because it is a church.

But while this is a troubling opinion that blurs the lines of church-state separation, the Court took care to limit its scope, saying that “[t]his case involves express discrimination based on religious identity with respect to playground resurfacing. We do not address religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination.”

AU will continue to fight to ensure that the Supreme Court’s Trinity Lutheran decision is properly interpreted as a narrow exception to the First Amendment’s requirement that taxpayer dollars not go to churches to fund religious activities.

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