May 29, 2015

Americans United for Separation of Church and State today applauded a ruling that prohibits a church-owned preschool in Missouri from receiving a state grant to refurbish its playground.The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found 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.Today’s appeals court ruling upholds this earlier finding. Its decision notes that “[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.”“The court made the correct decision,” said Alex J. Luchenitser, Americans United’s associate legal director. “Churches aren’t entitled to tap the public purse to pay for their projects.”Added AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan, “Missouri’s Constitution does not discriminate against churches. It merely ensures that state government doesn’t spend taxpayer money on religion.”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, saying 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.