Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer

Decision Date26 June 2017
Docket NumberNo. 15–577.,15–577.
Citation137 S.Ct. 2012,198 L.Ed.2d 551
Parties TRINITY LUTHERAN CHURCH OF COLUMBIA, INC., Petitioner v. Carol S. COMER, Director, Missouri Department of Natural Resources.
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Erik W. Stanley, Kevin H. Theriot, Alliance Defending Freedom, Scottsdale, AZ, Michael K. Whitehead, Jonathan R. Whitehead, The Whitehead Law Firm, LLC, Kansas City, MO, David A. Cortman, Rory T. Gray, Alliance Defending Freedom, Lawrenceville, GA, Jordan W. Lorence, Alliance Defending Freedom, Washington, DC, for petitioner.

Chris Koster, Attorney General of Missouri, James B. Farnsworth, Assistant Attorney General, James R. Layton, Solicitor General, Jefferson City, MO, for respondent.

Chief Justice ROBERTS delivered the opinion of the Court, except as to footnote 3.

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources offers state grants to help public and private schools, nonprofit daycare centers, and other nonprofit entities purchase rubber playground surfaces made from recycled tires. Trinity Lutheran Church applied for such a grant for its preschool and daycare center and would have received one, but for the fact that Trinity Lutheran is a church. The Department had a policy of categorically disqualifying churches and other religious organizations from receiving grants under its playground resurfacing program. The question presented is whether the Department's policy violated the rights of Trinity Lutheran under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

I
A

The Trinity Lutheran Church Child Learning Center is a preschool and daycare center open throughout the year to serve working families in Boone County, Missouri, and the surrounding area. Established as a nonprofit organization in 1980, the Center merged with Trinity Lutheran Church in 1985 and operates under its auspices on church property. The Center admits students of any religion, and enrollment stands at about 90 children ranging from age two to five.

The Center includes a playground that is equipped with the basic playground essentials: slides, swings, jungle gyms, monkey bars, and sandboxes. Almost the entire surface beneath and surrounding the play equipment is coarse pea gravel. Youngsters, of course, often fall on the playground or tumble from the equipment. And when they do, the gravel can be unforgiving.

In 2012, the Center sought to replace a large portion of the pea gravel with a pour-in-place rubber surface by participating in Missouri's Scrap Tire Program. Run by the State's Department of Natural Resources to reduce the number of used tires destined for landfills and dump sites, the program offers reimbursement grants to qualifying nonprofit organizations that purchase playground surfaces made from recycled tires. It is funded through a fee imposed on the sale of new tires in the State.

Due to limited resources, the Department cannot offer grants to all applicants and so awards them on a competitive basis to those scoring highest based on several criteria, such as the poverty level of the population in the surrounding area and the applicant's plan to promote recycling. When the Center applied, the Department had a strict and express policy of denying grants to any applicant owned or controlled by a church, sect, or other religious entity. That policy, in the Department's view, was compelled by Article I, Section 7 of the Missouri Constitution, which provides:

"That no money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect or denomination of religion, or in aid of any priest, preacher, minister or teacher thereof, as such; and that no preference shall be given to nor any discrimination made against any church, sect or creed of religion, or any form of religious faith or worship."

In its application, the Center disclosed its status as a ministry of Trinity Lutheran Church and specified that the Center's mission was "to provide a safe, clean, and attractive school facility in conjunction with an educational program structured to allow a child to grow spiritually, physically, socially, and cognitively." App. to Pet. for Cert. 131a. After describing the playground and the safety hazards posed by its current surface, the Center detailed the anticipated benefits of the proposed project: increasing access to the playground for all children, including those with disabilities, by providing a surface compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990; providing a safe, long-lasting, and resilient surface under the play areas; and improving Missouri's environment by putting recycled tires to positive use. The Center also noted that the benefits of a new surface would extend beyond its students to the local community, whose children often use the playground during non-school hours.

The Center ranked fifth among the 44 applicants in the 2012 Scrap Tire Program. But despite its high score, the Center was deemed categorically ineligible to receive a grant. In a letter rejecting the Center's application, the program director explained that, under Article I, Section 7 of the Missouri Constitution, the Department could not provide financial assistance directly to a church.

The Department ultimately awarded 14 grants as part of the 2012 program. Because the Center was operated by Trinity Lutheran Church, it did not receive a grant.

B

Trinity Lutheran sued the Director of the Department in Federal District Court. The Church alleged that the Department's failure to approve the Center's application, pursuant to its policy of denying grants to religiously affiliated applicants, violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Trinity Lutheran sought declaratory and injunctive relief prohibiting the Department from discriminating against the Church on that basis in future grant applications.

The District Court granted the Department's motion to dismiss. The Free Exercise Clause, the District Court stated, prohibits the government from outlawing or restricting the exercise of a religious practice; it generally does not prohibit withholding an affirmative benefit on account of religion. The District Court likened the Department's denial of the scrap tire grant to the situation this Court encountered in Locke v. Davey, 540 U.S. 712, 124 S.Ct. 1307, 158 L.Ed.2d 1 (2004). In that case, we upheld against a free exercise challenge the State of Washington's decision not to fund degrees in devotional theology as part of a state scholarship program. Finding the present case "nearly indistinguishable from Locke, " the District Court held that the Free Exercise Clause did not require the State to make funds available under the Scrap Tire Program to religious institutions like Trinity Lutheran. Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Pauley, 976 F.Supp.2d 1137, 1151 (W.D.Mo.2013).

The Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed. The court recognized that it was "rather clear" that Missouri could award a scrap tire grant to Trinity Lutheran without running afoul of the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution. Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Pauley, 788 F.3d 779, 784 (2015). But, the Court of Appeals explained, that did not mean the Free Exercise Clause compelled the State to disregard the antiestablishment principle reflected in its own Constitution. Viewing a monetary grant to a religious institution as a " ‘hallmark[ ] of an established religion,’ " the court concluded that the State could rely on an applicant's religious status to deny its application. Id., at 785 (quoting Locke, 540 U.S., at 722, 124 S.Ct. 1307 ; some internal quotation marks omitted).

Judge Gruender dissented. He distinguished Locke on the ground that it concerned the narrow issue of funding for the religious training of clergy, and "did not leave states with unfettered discretion to exclude the religious from generally available public benefits." 788 F.3d, at 791 (opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part).

Rehearing en banc was denied by an equally divided court.

We granted certiorari sub nom. Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Pauley, 577 U.S. ––––, 136 S.Ct. 891, 193 L.Ed.2d 784 (2016), and now reverse.1

II

The First Amendment provides, in part, that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The parties agree that the Establishment Clause of that Amendment does not prevent Missouri from including Trinity Lutheran in the Scrap Tire Program. That does not, however, answer the question under the Free Exercise Clause, because we have recognized that there is "play in the joints" between what the Establishment Clause permits and the Free Exercise Clause compels. Locke, 540 U.S., at 718, 124 S.Ct. 1307 (internal quotation marks omitted).

The Free Exercise Clause "protect[s] religious observers against unequal treatment" and subjects to the strictest scrutiny laws that target the religious for "special disabilities" based on their "religious status." Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. Hialeah, 508 U.S. 520, 533, 542, 113 S.Ct. 2217, 124 L.Ed.2d 472 (1993) (internal quotation marks omitted). Applying that basic principle, this Court has repeatedly confirmed that 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." McDaniel v. Paty, 435 U.S. 618, 628, 98 S.Ct. 1322, 55 L.Ed.2d 593 (1978) (plurality opinion) (quoting Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205, 215, 92 S.Ct. 1526, 32 L.Ed.2d 15 (1972) ).

In Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing, 330 U.S. 1, 67 S.Ct. 504, 91 L.Ed. 711 (1947), for example, we upheld against an Establishment Clause challenge a New Jersey law enabling a local school district to reimburse parents for the public transportation costs of sending their children to public and private schools, including parochial schools. In the course...

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