Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer

Facts of the Case

Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. (Trinity) operates a licensed preschool and daycare called The Learning Center that was initially opened as a non-profit corporation but merged with Trinity in 1985. The Learning Center has an open admissions policy and incorporates daily religious instruction into its programs. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) offers Playground Scrap Tire Surface Material Grants that provide funds for qualifying organizations to purchase recycled tires to resurface playgrounds. Trinity applied for such a grant but was denied because Article I, Section 7 of the Missouri Constitution states, “no money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, section or denomination of religion.” Trinity sued and argued that the denial of its application violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as well as the First Amendment’s protections of freedom of religion and speech. The district court granted Missouri DNR Director Pauley’s motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, and Trinity moved for reconsideration and to amend its complaint to include allegations that such grants had previously been given to religious organizations. The district court denied the motions, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed the dismissal and the denial of the motions to reconsider and amend the complaint.

Question

Does the exclusion of churches from an otherwise neutral and secular aid program violate the First Amendment’s guarantee of free exercise of religion and the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause?

CONCLUSION

The exclusion of churches from an otherwise neutral and secular aid program violates the First Amendment’s guarantee of free exercise of religion. Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. delivered the opinion of the 7-2 majority. The Court held that the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment protected the freedom to practice religion and subjects laws that burden religious practice to strict scrutiny. First Amendment precedent had established that laws that deny an otherwise generally available benefit because of religious status are unconstitutional, though laws that are neutral and generally applicable may be upheld even if they hamper religion. The distinction was whether the law in question discriminates against some or all religious beliefs. In this case, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources’ policy of denying religious organizations from its Playground Scrap Tire Surface Material Grants violated the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause because it discriminated against otherwise eligible organizations based solely on their religious character. The law did not need to prevent the religious organization from practicing its religious