On April 19, 2017, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer. The Learning Center is a licensed preschool and daycare that is operated by Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc (Trinity). Though it incorporates religious instruction into its curriculum, the school is open to all children. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) offers Playground Scrap Tire Surface Material Grants to organizations that qualify for resurfacing of playgrounds. Trinity’s application for such a grant was denied under Article I, Section 7 of the Missouri Constitution, which 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 sued, arguing that DNR’s denial violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the First Amendment’s protections of freedom of religion and speech. The district court dismissed for failure to state a claim. Trinity moved for reconsideration, amending its complaint to include allegations that DNR had previously funded religious organizations with the same grant, but the district court denied again. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit upheld the decision, agreeing with both the dismissal and denial of motions.
The question before the Supreme Court is whether the exclusion of churches from an otherwise neutral and secular aid program violates the Free Exercise and Equal Protection Clauses when the state has, according to the petitioner church, no valid Establishment Clause concern.
To discuss the case, we have Hannah C. Smith, who is Senior Counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.