The Supreme Court Sided With Trinity Lutheran Church

Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer involved a state program that provided grants to nonprofits to help provide a rubberized surface made from recycled  tires to cover playgrounds to keep children safe. A provision of the Missouri Constitution blocks public funds from directly or indirectly assisting any church, sect or religion. One preschool and daycare was excluded from obtaining the funds because it is run by a church.

Video:  Why the Trinity Lutheran Supreme Court Case Matters

The Supreme Court ruled 7-2 for Trinity Lutheran Church.   Justice Sotomayor filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Ginsburg joined.

The case focused on whether this decision conflicts with the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, and specifically whether Missouri was violating the free-exercise clause by preventing Trinity Lutheran from participating in a secular, neutral aid program. On Monday, the court overwhelmingly agreed that the answer was “yes.” TheAtlantic

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources’ express policy of denying grants to any applicant owned or controlled by a church, sect or other religious entity violated the rights of Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc., under the free exercise clause of the First Amendment by denying the church an otherwise available public benefit on account of its religious status. scotusblog

Justice Roberts:

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources has not subjected anyone to chains or torture on account of religion. And the result of the State’s policy is nothing so dramatic as the denial of political office. The consequence is, in all likelihood, a few extra scraped knees. 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. SupremeCourt

A Footnote To The Decision

“Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote the majority opinion, but Justice Neil M. Gorsuch and Justice Clarence Thomas did not join a footnote where four justices state, ‘This 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.’ Because only four justices joined that footnote, it is technically not considered the opinion of the court.” WashingtonPost

Case Could Potentially Expand The Free-Exercise Clause Of The First Amendment

Seven justices affirmed the judgment in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, albeit with some disagreement about the reasoning behind it. The major church-state case could potentially expand the legal understanding of the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It is also the first time the Supreme Court has ruled that governments must provide money directly to a house of worship, which could have implications for future policy fights—including funding for private, religious charter schools.  TheAtlantic

Constitutional attorney David French: 

While there are many threats to religious liberty, few are more consequential over the long term than the state’s ever-expanding role in private life. If the government is able to vacuum up tax dollars, create programs large and small for public benefit, and then exclude religious individuals or institutions from those programs, it has functionally created two tiers of citizenship. Secular individuals and institutions enjoy full access to the government they fund, while religious individuals and institutions find themselves funding a government that overtly discriminates against them.

  • First, it places another brick in a wall of precedent that stands for the proposition that once the state creates a neutral program — one designed neither to advance nor to inhibit religious practice — it can’t exclude citizens or institutions from that program merely because they’re religious. Under these precedents, churches are able to worship in government buildings, religious student groups may access student activity fees to fund their campus outreach, parents may send their children to religious schools with publicly funded vouchers, and hosts of religious organizations may participate in public–private partnerships to serve our nation’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens. So entrenched is this precedent that it would have been a legal earthquake had the Court ruled against the church.
  • Second, seven of the nine justices concurred in the result of the case. This means that the principle of religious nondiscrimination in public programs has broad judicial support. NationalReview

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