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Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer

Justia Summary

Trinity Lutheran Child Learning Center, operating on church property, sought to replace its playground’s gravel surface by participating in Missouri’s Scrap Tire Program, which offers grants to qualifying nonprofit organizations that install playground surfaces made from recycled tires. The Department of Natural Resources had a strict, express policy of denying grants to any applicant owned or controlled by a church, sect, or other religious entity and denied the Center’s application, citing Missouri Constitution Article I, Section 7. The Church sued under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. The Eighth Circuit affirmed dismissal. The Supreme Court reversed. The policy violated Trinity's rights under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment by denying the Church an otherwise available public benefit on account of its religious status. Laws imposing special disabilities on the basis of religious status trigger the strictest scrutiny. The Court rejected an argument that simply declining to allocate to Trinity a subsidy the state had no obligation to provide did not meaningfully burden the Church’s free exercise rights; the Free Exercise Clause protects against “indirect coercion or penalties on the free exercise of religion, not just outright prohibitions.” The express discrimination against religious exercise here is not the denial of a grant, but rather the refusal to allow the Church—solely because it is a church—to compete with secular organizations for a grant. Trinity was put to the choice between being a church and receiving a government benefit. The Department “offers nothing more than Missouri’s preference for skating as far as possible from religious establishment concerns.”

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