WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. Supreme Court voted by a 7-2 margin to rule in favor of the Columbia, Missouri’s Trinity Lutheran Church in a case that had serious implications for religious liberty and expenditures by the state.
In 2012, the church applied to be a part of the Scrap Tire Surface Material grant program offered by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources to put shredded up tires on the playground of the church’s preschool schoolyard. However, DNR rejected their application because it was a religious organization, despite their high ranking among grant recipients, and the Department feared funding the project could constitute favoring one religious organization over another.
Highlights from Chief Justice John Roberts’ majority decision
- “The Department’s policy expressly discriminates against otherwise eligible recipients by disqualifying them from a public benefit solely because of their religious character. If the cases just described make one thing clear, it is that such a policy imposes a penalty on the free exercise of religion that triggers the most exacting scrutiny… This conclusion is unremarkable in light of our prior decisions.”
- “…Denying a generally available benefit solely on account of religious identity imposes a penalty on the free exercise of religion that can be justified only by a state interest ‘of the highest order.'”
- “It is true the Department has not criminalized the way Trinity Lutheran worships or told the Church that it cannot subscribe to a certain view of the Gospel. But, as the Department itself acknowledges, the Free Exercise Clause protects against ‘indirect coercion or penalties on the free exercise of religion, not just outright prohibitions.'”
- The court breakdown was not quite so left vs. right as one would believe on an issue involving religious liberty, which has become a hot-button topic in recent years. Justices Anthony Kennedy and Elena Kagan, generally seen as more liberal, joined Roberts’ opinion in full, as did conservative Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas. Justice Stephen Breyer, also more on the liberal side, filed his own concurring opinion. Only Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsberg, both liberal jurists, opposed the decision.
- In her dissenting opinion, Sotomayor says the issue is much larger than just a grant program offered by the government. “The Court today profoundly changes that relationship [between church and state] by holding, for the first time, that the Constitution requires the government to provide public funds directly to a church. Its decision slights both our precedents and our history, and its reasoning weakens this country’s longstanding commitment to a separation of church and state beneficial to both.”
- Attorney General Josh Hawley did not argue in favor of the Department before the Supreme Court as he recused himself from the case in January, and the entire AG’s office recused itself in April, just before the case was heard. Hawley, who lived in Columbia before his election, had performed some legal work for Trinity Lutheran, making it a conflict of interest for him to argue against the church. Jim Layton, the former Missouri Solicitor General under former AG Chris Koster, argued the case in April instead.
Reactions in Jefferson City
- Gov. Eric Greitens: “People of faith won an important victory today. Earlier this year, I reversed Missouri’s policies that discriminated against religious organizations. The ACLU and others attacked our decision. We did not back down, and we will continue to fight for people of faith. Like our administration, the Supreme Court decided that people of faith should not be discriminated against. Missouri is home to many excellent religious organizations that serve our kids, our families, and our communities. We will continue to work together with these organizations to help the people of Missouri.”
- Attorney General Josh Hawley: “Today is a great day for Missouri’s Trinity Lutheran Church, and an even better day for religious freedom in America. With today’s ruling, the United States 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. People of faith cannot be treated like second-class citizens. Gov. Jay Nixon’s administration was wrong to interpret Missouri’s Constitution to require such unlawful discrimination. Today’s decision means discrimination of this kind will never be permitted again in the state of Missouri, or anywhere.”