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Supreme Court Reproaches Missouri for Religious Discrimination and Protects Religious Liberty

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By a 7-2 majority, the Supreme Court of the United States today reaffirmed that the government may not refuse publicly available benefits to religious institutions on the basis of their religion. In Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, Director, Missouri Department of Natural Resources, the Court held that the State of Missouri violated Trinity Lutheran Church’s First Amendment Free Exercise Rights by denying state grant money for the refurbishing of a playground owned by Trinity—when the denial was explicitly because Trinity is a church. The Court’s decision should have far-reaching implications for other churches and faith-based organizations seeking to use government-provided grant money to advance their charitable efforts.

Trinity’s Grant Application and Missouri’s Denial

In 2012, Trinity Lutheran Church applied to a Missouri state program which reimburses nonprofits for the installation of playground surfaces made from recycled tires. Trinity Lutheran Church Child Learning Center, a pre-school and daycare center operated by the Church, applied for the state funding. The state grants were awarded on a competitive basis, and applicants were scored and ranked based on several criteria. In the state’s assessment of applications, Trinity ranked 5th out of 44 total applicants. Despite its favorable ranking, the State of Missouri denied the grant. According to the State, the Missouri constitution prohibited the state from granting funds to a church. The State thus argued that granting funds to Trinity violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Missouri Violates the Free Exercise Cause – Trinity Vindicated

The Supreme Court disagreed. In overturning the federal district court and the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court held that Missouri’s denial of the grant money violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. 

The Free Exercise Clause prohibits the government from interfering with and otherwise burdening the free exercise of religion. The Court has historically held that denying a generally available benefit solely on the basis of religious identity unconstitutionally penalizes the free exercise of religion. Here, the Court reasoned, Missouri required Trinity to make a choice: it may participate in benefits available to the public, or it may remain a religious institution. By banning churches from even competing with secular organizations for a grant, the State posed an ultimatum to all religious institutions: expressly renounce your religious character; or forego any opportunity to participate in otherwise generally available public benefit programs. Such choice runs afoul of the Free Exercise Clause.

The Court explained that such infringement by the government is subject to the “strictest scrutiny” and can only be justified by “a state interest of the highest order.” Despite Missouri’s vague concerns about the governmental establishment of religion, the state was unable to prove a compelling interest sufficient to justify this heightened level of scrutiny.

Implications for Religious Institutions Seeking Grant Funds

Today’s ruling should be encouraging to nonprofits— especially religious nonprofits with programming targeting community betterment and social improvement. In its decision, the Supreme Court strongly upheld Constitutional protections for religious institutions to participate in civil life without renouncing their religious character.

However, as Justice Gorsuch noted in his concurrence, in light of the Court’s holding in this case, nonprofits should be mindful of the distinction between religious status and religious use or action. While a government entity may not discriminate on the basis of the religious status of the organization, it may withhold funds where such funds would be put to furthering explicitly religious uses. Missouri therefore may not discriminate in the allocation of funds reserved for the resurfacing of playgrounds, but it likely can refuse funds devoted to putting Missouri students through seminary. As Justice Gorsuch observed, such distinction is a difficult and fine line to maintain. Nevertheless, it is a major victory for religious institutions, as the U.S. Supreme Court, at least, recognizes that participation in the public square and civil society does not require one to renounce one’s most cherished and sincerely held beliefs.

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