In Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Carol S. Comer, Director, Missouri Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the State of Missouri violated the U.S. Constitution when it denied a playground resurfacing grant to the Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia based solely on its status as a religious institution.
Facts of the Case
The Trinity Lutheran Church Child Learning Center (Center) operates a pre-school and daycare center on church property. In 2012, the Center sought to replace the pea gravel on its playground with a pour-in-place rubber surface by participating in Missouri’s Scrap Tire Program. The program, run by the State’s Department of Natural Resources (Department), provides grants to qualifying nonprofit organizations that install playground surfaces made from recycled tires.
Citing its express policy of denying grants to any applicant owned or controlled by a church, sect, or other religious entity, the Department denied the Center’s application. In rejecting that application, the Department explained that under Article I, Section 7 of the Missouri Constitution, the Department could not provide financial assistance directly to a church.
Trinity Lutheran subsequently filed a federal lawsuit, alleging that the Department’s failure to approve its application violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. The District Court dismissed the suit. It reasoned that the Free Exercise Clause prohibits the government from outlawing or restricting the exercise of a religious practice, but it generally does “not prohibit withholding an affirmative benefit on account of religion.”
A divided panel of the Eighth Circuit affirmed. According to the appeals court, the fact that the State could award a scrap tire grant to Trinity Lutheran without running afoul of the Establishment Clause did not mean that the Free Exercise Clause compelled the State to “disregard the broader antiestablishment principle reflected in its own Constitution.”
Supreme Court’s Decision
By a vote of 7-2, a majority of the Supreme Court disagreed. It held that the Department’s policy violated the rights of Trinity Lutheran under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment by denying “a qualified religious entity a public benefit solely because of its religious character.”
“The consequence is, in all likelihood, a few extra scraped knees,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote. “But the exclusion of Trinity Lutheran from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, solely because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution all the same, and cannot stand.”
In reaching its decision, the majority noted that the Free Exercise Clause protects against “indirect coercion or penalties on the free exercise of religion, not just outright prohibitions.” Accordingly, the majority rejected the Department’s argument that simply declining to provide Trinity Lutheran a subsidy, that the State had no obligation to provide, “does not meaningfully burden the Church’s free exercise rights.” As the Chief Justice explained:
“Trinity Lutheran is not claiming any entitlement to a subsidy. It instead asserts a right to participate in a government benefit program without having to disavow its religious character…. The express discrimination against religious exercise here is not the denial of a grant, but rather the refusal to allow the Church—solely because it is a church—to compete with secular organizations for a grant.”
The majority also distinguished the case from Locke v. Davey, in which the Court upheld the State of Washington’s decision not to fund students seeking devotional theology degrees under a state scholarship program. “Davey was not denied a scholarship because of who he was; he was denied a scholarship because of what he proposed to do,” Chief Justice Roberts noted. “Here there is no question that Trinity Lutheran was denied a grant simply because of what it is—a church.”
Because the Supreme Court’s decision in Trinity Lutheran may impact state and local grant programs, we encourage public entities to review the ruling and contact our experienced counsel with any questions or concerns.
For more information about the court’s decision in Trinity Lutheran or the legal issues involved, we encourage you to contact a member of Scarinci Hollenbeck’s Government Law Group.