State Leaders Commend SCOTUS Decision on Faith Bias
and federal elected officials in Missouri are welcoming a decision by
the Supreme Court last week affirming the free exercise rights of a
Lutheran congregation in Mid-Missouri.
In a case known as Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer,
the Supreme Court ruled that the State of Missouri could not disqualify
a church from receiving a recycling grant because of its religious
The Missouri Department of Natural Resources (as
described in the adjacent story) refused to award a grant to Trinity
Lutheran Church in Columbia to rubberize the surface of its playground
even though it received a highly competitive evaluation.
officials cited a provision in Missouri's Constitution that forbids the
distribution of state funds to any "church, sect, or denomination of
The Supreme Court concluded that the Department's
actions involved express discrimination based on religious identity in
violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.
Attorney General Joshua Hawley said that "Today is a great day for
Missouri's Trinity Lutheran Church and an even better day for religious
freedom in America."
"The U.S. Supreme Court has made clear that
the First Amendment does not permit government to discriminate against
churches or religious organizations on the basis of faith," Hawley
"People of faith cannot be treated like second-class
citizens. Today's decision means discrimination of this kind will
never be permitted again in the State of Missouri, or anywhere else,"
Missouri Governor Eric Greitens said that "People
of faith won an important victory today. Earlier this year, I
reversed Missouri's policies that discriminated against religious
"The ACLU and others attacked our decision.
We did not back down, and we will continue to fight for people of
faith. Missouri is home to many excellent religious organizations
that serve our kids, our families, and our communities. We will
continue to work with them to help the people of Missouri," Greitens
U.S. Senator Roy Blunt also applauded the Trinity
Lutheran ruling. "Today's decision marks a key victory for
Americans' right to religious liberty, a fundamental freedom that we
have enjoyed since the founding of our nation."
Claire McCaskill also commended the High Court ruling. "I think
most Missourians would agree that, no matter what kind of school our
young kids attend, they should all have access to a safe area to
play. That's a commonsense principle, and I agree with the Court."
Esbeck, a constitutional law professor at the University of Missouri,
says the Supreme Court decision maintains a prior distinction regarding
entanglement of government with religion.
Esbeck points out that
states can legally deny funding to organizations or individuals for
expressly religious purposes, but cannot ban religiously affiliated
groups from participating in public programs with a non-religious
"The question cannot be 'who are you?," Esbeck
explained. "The question has to be, 'how are you spending the
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U.S. Supreme Court Rejects Bias Against
Church in Missouri
Central Missouri church has won a major victory before the U.S. Supreme
Court that may open the door to religious organizations having equal
access to the secular use of public funding. The decision by
Court raises new questions about the constitutionality of provisions in
many state constitutions which prohibit any financial relationship
between the public treasury and religious institutions.
Supreme Court ruled emphatically last week that the State of Missouri
had violated the Free Exercise rights of Trinity Lutheran Church in
Columbia when it disqualified its grant application under the state's
Scrap Tire Program. Under that program, the Missouri Department of
Natural Resources (DNR) awards grants to nonprofit organizations which
install playground surfaces made from recycled tires.
Lutheran applied for a $20,000 grant under that program in 2012 to
resurface the playground at its preschool and daycare center known as
the Trinity Lutheran Child Learning Center. Despite the fact that
Trinity's grant application ranked 5th out of 44 applicants, DNR
denied the church's grant, citing a section of Missouri's Constitution barring state aid to sectarian organizations.
I, Section 7 of Missouri's Constitution reads in part that "No money
shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in
aid of any church, sect, or denomination of religion, or in aid of any
priest, preacher, minister, or teacher thereof..."
provision is commonly referred to as the Blaine Amendment. It is
similar to language adopted by many states in their constitutions in the
1870's which were inspired by Senator James Blaine of Maine.
Historians are generally in agreement that the Blaine Amendments (now on
the books in 37 states) were designed to guarantee that no public funds were distributed to parochial schools during a period of rising anti-Catholic sentiment.
a surprising 7-2 decision that included two liberal members of the U.S.
Supreme Court, the justices ruled that the State of Missouri violated
the First Amendment Free Exercise rights of the church by "denying an
otherwise available public benefit on account of the applicant's
Chief Justice John Roberts,
who authored the opinion for the High Court, stated that "automatic and
absolute exclusion" of a church from the benefits of a public program solely because of its religious character "punishes the free exercise of religion" and "is odious to our Constitution."
Free Exercise Clause protects against laws that impose special
disabilities on the basis of religious status ...and single out the
religious for disfavored treatment," Roberts wrote. Yet the Chief
Justice also appended a footnote to the decision saying that the ruling
does not address other religious uses of funding or other forms of
discrimination besides the issue of playground resurfacing.
That footnote didn't sit well
with Justice Clarence Thomas and newly seated Justice Neil
Gorsuch. They argued that the scope of the decision should not be
restricted to cases of children's safety or health, or some other social
good. "The general principles...faithfully applied by the Court's
opinion...do not permit discrimination against religious
exercise---whether on the playground or anywhere else," the two wrote. Justice Sonia Sotamayor
authored a vigorous dissent, saying that "the Court for the first time
[has ruled] that the Constitution requires the government to provide
public funds directly to a church." She stated that such a public
subsidy "impermissibly advances religion" in violation of the
Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
James Layton, who
defended the State of Missouri's position on behalf of the Attorney
General's office, argued that while the First Amendment prevents the
government from discriminating against religion, "it does not guarantee
churches opportunities for public financing." "Trinity Lutheran
remains free to worship, pray, and practice any other aspect of its
faith however it
wishes. The State merely declines to offer financial support."
The Alliance Defending Freedom represented Trinity Lutheran in the case. Senior Counsel David Cortman
said the ruling "affirms the commonsense principle that government
isn't being neutral when it treats religious organizations worse than
everyone else...Equal treatment of a religious organization in a program
that provides only secular benefits...isn't a government endorsement of
"Trinity Lutheran Church has faithfully served the
people of Columbia, Missouri, for over 90 years," Cortman added.
"Whether providing support for foster
children, donating labor, food, and funds to a local county food bank,
or helping with Habitat for Humanity building projects, Trinity Lutheran
Church lives its mission to be disciples. A rubber surface on its
playground accomplishes the state's purposes whether it cushions the
fall of the pious or the profane."
What the future portends for
Missouri's Blaine Amendment and that of other states will only be
determined by future decisions of the Supreme Court or the nation's
appellate courts. What is clear for now is that a significant
crack has occurred in Article I, Section 7 of Missouri's
Constitution. How deep that fissure in the state's supreme law
will prove to be only time will tell.