The Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) denied a Learning Center run by Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. (Trinity) federal funding to refurbish children’s playgrounds on the grounds of religious affiliation. The DNR offers Playground Scrap Tire Surface Material Grants to organizations that qualify for resurfacing of playgrounds. Though the licensed pre- school Learning Center incorporates religious instruction into is curriculum, the school is open to all children. Trinity’s Learning Center was denied funding based on Article I, Section 7 of the Missouri Constitution; the section reads: “no money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, section or denomination of religion.”
Trinity claimed that the DNR infringed upon their rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the First Amendment’s protections of freedom of religion and speech. The district court dismissed Trinity’s allegations, claiming that Trinity failed to file a specific claim. Trinity responded by amending its complaint to an allegation that other religious institutions had previously received the DNR funding; nevertheless, the district court denied the motions. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court decision, agreeing with both the dismissal and denial of motions.
The question at the heart of the case is whether or not the First Amendment’s free exercise of religion and the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause protect religious institutions from discrimination regarding the distribution of public funds. Ilya Shapiro of the CATO Institute and Hannah C. Smith of The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty joined us after oral arguments to discuss the case and the potential weight of the precedent set by decision.
- Ilya Shapiro, Senior Fellow in Constitutional Studies, Cato Institute
- Hannah C. Smith, Senior Counsel, The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty