Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer

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Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued April 19, 2017
Decided June 26, 2017
Full case name Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc., Petitioner v. Carol S. Comer, Director, Missouri Department of Natural Resources
Docket nos. 15-577
Citations 582 U.S. ___ (more)
Prior history 788 F.3d 779 (8th Cir. May 29, 2015)
Missouri's policy violated the rights of Trinity Lutheran under the Free Exercise Clause by denying the church an otherwise available public benefit on account of its religious status. (Eighth Circuit reversed and remanded.)
Court membership
Chief Justice
John G. Roberts
Associate Justices
Anthony Kennedy · Clarence Thomas
Ruth Bader Ginsburg · Stephen Breyer
Samuel Alito · Sonia Sotomayor
Elena Kagan · Neil Gorsuch
Case opinions
Majority Roberts (except footnote 3), joined by Kennedy, Alito, Kagan (in full); Thomas, Gorsuch (except footnote 3)
Concurrence Thomas (in part), joined by Gorsuch
Concurrence Gorsuch (in part), joined by Thomas
Concurrence Breyer (in judgment)
Dissent Sotomayor, joined by Ginsburg
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. I

Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, 582 U.S. ___ (2017), is a decision in which the Supreme Court of the United States held that a Missouri program that denied funding to religious groups that would be used for secular purposes that is provided to non-religious groups violated the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of religious exercise that is known as the Free Exercise Clause.[1][2][3]


Trinity Lutheran Church operates a licensed preschool and daycare in Columbia, Missouri that was initially opened as a non-profit corporation but merged with the church in 1985. The preschool and daycare has an open admissions policy and incorporates daily religious instruction into its programs. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources offers grants that provide funds for qualifying organizations to purchase recycled tires to resurface playgrounds. Trinity applied for such a grant but was denied because the Constitution of Missouri states, "no money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect or denomination of religion."[4] The church brought suit in the United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri, arguing that the denial of its application violated the Equal Protection Clause as well as the First Amendment's protections of freedom of religion and speech.

On September 26, 2013, District Judge Nanette Kay Laughrey granted DNR Director Sarah Parker Pauly's motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim.[5] Trinity moved for reconsideration and to amend its complaint to include allegations that such grants had previously been given to religious organizations, which the District Court then denied.[6]

On May 29, 2015, United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit Judge James B. Loken, joined by Judge Michael Joseph Melloy, affirmed the District Court, over the partial dissent of Judge Raymond Gruender. On August 11, 2015, a rehearing en banc was denied by an equally divided circuit, with Judges Gruender, William J. Riley, Lavenski Smith, Steven Colloton, and Bobby Shepherd voting to review.[7]

Before the case was set to be argued, Governor Eric Greitens announced that the state would no longer discriminate against religious groups in evaluating grant applications for programs like the one at issue in the case.[2] However, the decision was not anticipated to affect the case at hand since the decision to deny the grant had been made five years prior.[8]

The Court considered whether the exclusion of churches from an otherwise neutral and secular aid program violates the Free Exercise Clause and Equal Protection Clause when the state has no valid Establishment Clause concern.[9]

Opinion of the Court

On June 26, 2017, the last day of the term, the Supreme Court delivered judgment in favor of the church, with seven justices voting to reverse the court below.[2] Chief Justice John Roberts, in an opinion joined fully by Justices Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alito, and Elena Kagan, wrote that the state violated the First Amendment by denying a public benefit to an otherwise eligible recipient solely on account of its religious status, calling it "odious to our Constitution" to exclude the church from the grant program, even though the consequences are only "a few extra scraped knees."[10]

Roberts stopped short of a more blanket ruling, adding a footnote to clarify that the case "involves express discrimination based on religious identity with respect to playground resurfacing" and that the Court was not addressing religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination."[11] Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch did not join this footnote in the opinion.[12]

The Chief Justice noted that Locke v. Davey, 540 U.S. 712 (2004), upheld the state of Washington's decision not to fund students seeking degrees in devotional theology as part of a state scholarship program, but said the state did not want to force students to give up their religious views; for instance, the scholarships could be used at religious schools.[13]

Thomas's concurrence

Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justice Neil Gorsuch, concurred in part with the opinion of the Court. He joined nearly all of the opinion, but did not join footnote 3.[11] He took issue with the Court's endorsement in Locke of even a "mild kind" of discrimination against religion, but since the Court "appropriately construes Locke narrowly," he was able to join nearly all of the opinion.[1]

Gorsuch's concurrence

Justice Neil Gorsuch, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, concurred in part. He offered two qualifications: first, that "the Court leaves open the possibility a useful distinction might be drawn between laws that discriminate on the basis of religious status and religious use," and second, that footnote 3 may lead some to read that the Court's ruling applies only in cases involving a playground "or only those with some association with children’s safety or health, or perhaps some other social good we find sufficiently worthy."[1]

Breyer's concurrence in judgment

Justice Stephen Breyer concurred only in the judgment. Citing the Court's ruling in Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1 (1947), where Justice Hugo Black wrote that depriving parochial schools from "general government services as ordinary police and fire obviously not the purpose of the First Amendment," Breyer equated Missouri's program with the general government services in Everson.[1]

Sotomayor's dissent

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, read from her dissenting opinion from the bench. It took strong exception to the ruling, saying it "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."[12] Further, "[t]he Court today profoundly changes that relationship by holding, for the first time, that the Constitution requires the government to provide public funds directly to a church."[10]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d Slip opinion from the U.S. Supreme Court
  2. ^ a b c Liptak, Adam (June 26, 2017). "States Must Aid Some Church Programs, Justices Rule". The New York Times. 
  3. ^ SCOTUSblog: Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer
  4. ^ Mo. Const.: art. I, § 7
  5. ^ Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Pauley, 976 F.Supp.2d 1137 (WD Mo. 2013).
  6. ^ Oyez: Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer
  7. ^ Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Sara Parker Pauley, in her official capacity, 788 F.3d 779 (8th Cir. May 29, 2015).
  8. ^ Office of Missouri Governor Eric Greitens (April 13, 2017): Governor Greitens Announces New Policy to Defend Religious Freedom
  9. ^ No. 15-577: Question Presented
  10. ^ a b Hananel, Sam; Sherman, Mark (June 27, 2017). "Supreme Court rules for Missouri church in playground case". Associated Press. 
  11. ^ a b Full footnote: "This case involves express discrimination based on religious identity with respect to playground resurfacing. We do not address religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination." (Slip op. at 14)
  12. ^ a b Wermund, Benjamin; Emma, Caitlin (June 26, 2017). "States must support some church programs, high court rules". Politico. 
  13. ^ Barnes, Robert (June 26, 2017). "Supreme Court sides with religious institutions in a major church-state decision". The Washington Post. 
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