Jul 05, 2016

Missouri is not obligated to give a grant to a church for the purpose of refurbishing its religious preschool’s playground, Americans United for Separation of Church and State says.

In a friend-of-the-court brief in the case of Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Pauley submitted today to the U.S. Supreme Court by Americans United and seven allied groups, the organizations explain that Missouri’s decision to offer grants only to secular organizations is not unconstitutional. 

“It is dismaying to see a house of worship demanding a handout from taxpayers,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “If Trinity Lutheran wants to build a new playground, it should do so with its own money.”

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources Solid Waste Management Program awards grants to qualifying organizations so that they may 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 religion.”

Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia applied to participate in the grant program in early 2012, on behalf of a religious preschool it operates. In May 2012, its application was denied. In January 2013, Trinity Lutheran filed suit against the state, claiming that it was being discriminated against. 

A federal trial court ruled against the church, and the 8th U.S. Circuit of Appeals upheld the district court's decision in May 2015. But in January 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

In their brief, Americans United and its allies assert that the framers of the U.S. Constitution sought to prevent precisely this sort of government subsidizing of religion.

“The framers of the First Amendment and of the early state constitutions sought broadly to protect religion against the corrupting influences that could result from public funding—such as inciting unsavory competition for ever larger slices of governmental largesse, encouraging distortions of religious doctrine as churches try to make themselves more attractive to political decisionmakers, and engendering political divisiveness and strife along religious lines,” the brief states. “Just as importantly, the framers sought to protect citizens against what they identified as the particular tyranny of being taxed to support houses of worship and religious denominations whose beliefs one does not share.”

The groups that joined Americans United on the brief are: Anti-Defamation League; Central Conference of American Rabbis; Interfaith Alliance Foundation; Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Foundation of America; Jewish Social Policy Action Network; Union for Reform Judaism; and Women of Reform Judaism.

The brief was prepared by Americans United Legal Director Richard B. Katskee, Americans United Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser, Andrew J. Pincus of Mayer Brown LLP in Washington, D.C., and the Yale Law School Supreme Court Clinic.