A major First Amendment case is pending before the United States Supreme Court, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, No. 15-577. A daycare operated by and in Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Missouri, applied for a grant from the state Department of Natural Resources to help resurface the daycare’s playground. The grant was denied under the Missouri Constitution, which prohibits money “taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, section or denomination of religion.” The church challenged the denial under the federal constitution as a violation of the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Both the District Court and the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the state of Missouri, finding although the U.S. Constitution permitted such funding, it did not compel Missouri to provide public grant money directly to a church organization. The Court has many options before it, including finding the case moot (the new Missouri governor reversed the policy), affirming the lower courts, limiting a requirement to programs of general benefit, distinguishing between providing services and directly providing money, or forbidding the deprivation of grants non-profits based on religious reasons—here the identification with a particular religious group.
Why do we care? First, an invalidation of the Missouri constitutional provision would affect a similar, if narrower, Iowa Constitution provision. The Iowa provision is narrower, prohibiting any person having to pay taxes for building or repairing places of worship or the maintenance of any minister or ministry. Iowa Const. art. I, § 3. Second, the decision may result in opening many more state-funded grants to religious institutions, making already-competitive requests for public fund grants even more difficult to attain. Finally, the decision could have far-reaching implications on each state’s ability to regulate how to avoid the implied establishment of religion and ensure the equal treatment of all religions when providing state funded grants.
The Court’s decision will likely be issued sometime in June. However the Court decides, it is likely to have a significant impact on publicly-funded grants and religious non-profits in the years to come.
For more information and related documents see links below.
Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Pauley, Oyez, https://www.oyez.org/cases/2016/15-577 (including a transcript and recording of the arguments before the Court). (In January 2017, Carol Comer replaced Sara Pauley as the Director of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, so the decision will be issued with Ms. Comer as defendant rather than Ms. Pauley.)
Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, SCOTUSblog, http://www.scotusblog.com/case-files/cases/trinity-lutheran-church-of-columbia-inc-v-pauley/ (including all briefs filed before the Court, the lower court ruling, and a symposium of articles analyzing the issues).
Emma Green, The Supreme Court Considers Whether Churches Should Get Taxpayer Dollars, The Atlantic, Apr. 19, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/04/trinity-lutheran/523542/.
Robert Barnes, Justices Express Sympathy with Missouri Church at Supreme Court Hearing, Washington Post, Apr. 19, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/courts_law/justices-express-sympathy-to-missouri-church-at-supreme-court-hearing/2017/04/19/4d3f8be6-2070-11e7-a0a7-8b2a45e3dc84_story.html?utm_term=.5fe028d77cf7.
Op. Ed., The Supreme Court Weighs the Church-State Division, N.Y. Times, Apr. 22, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/22/opinion/sunday/the-supreme-court-weighs-the-church-state-division.html?_r=0.