June 26, 2017

Supreme Court Decides Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, No. 15-577

On June 26, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, holding that, when the government offers a public benefit to organizations that meet specified criteria, the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution prohibits it from denying the benefit to otherwise-qualified applicants simply because they are religious institutions.

The First Amendment to the Constitution provides, in relevant part, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

In Missouri, the Trinity Lutheran Church operates a daycare center with a playground. It sought to participate in a grant program operated by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources that reimburses nonprofit organizations who buy playground surfaces made from recycled tires. Trinity scored fifth among all applicants for the program, and 14 grants were available. But the Department did not award a grant to Trinity because the Missouri Constitution prohibits paying public monies “in aid of any church, sect or denomination of religion.” Trinity sued, claiming a violation of the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause. It lost in both the district court and the Eighth Circuit, which ruled in favor of Missouri.

The Supreme Court reversed by a 7-2 vote. The Missouri program, the Court held, “discriminates against otherwise eligible recipients by disqualifying them from a public benefit solely because of the religious character,” and it is therefore subject to “the strictest scrutiny.” Another decision of the Court had allowed the government to decline to support specific religious activities, such as by excluding training for ministers from a government scholarship program. But here, “Trinity Lutheran was denied a grant simply because of what it is — a church” — not because of what it proposed to do with the grant.

Applying strict scrutiny, the Court held that “skating as far as possible from religious establishment concerns” was not a “compelling” interest. Rather, “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 . . . and cannot stand.”

Chief Justice Roberts delivered the opinion of the Court (except for a plurality footnote), in which Justices Kennedy, Thomas, Alito, and Kagan joined. Justice Thomas filed an opinion concurring in part, in which Justice Gorsuch joined. Justice Gorsuch filed an opinion concurring in part, in which Justice Thomas joined. Justice Breyer filed an opinion concurring in the judgment. Justice Sotomayor filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Ginsburg joined.

Download the Opinion of the Court.

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