Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Pauley

LII note: The U.S. Supreme Court has now decided Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Pauley .


Does Missouri violate the First Amendment by denying churches governmental aid awarded with neutral criteria and a secular purpose?

Oral argument: 
April 19, 2017

In this case, the Supreme Court will determine whether the Free Exercise or Equal Protection Clause requires Missouri’s Department of Natural Resources to grant a qualifying religious institution’s funding application if it would have otherwise received funding absent its religious status. Trinity Lutheran Church argues that the Department’s policy amounts to a violation of the Free Exercise Clause because it singles out and excludes religious institutions by conditioning a generally available public benefit based on religious status. Moreover, Trinity contends that the policy violates the Equal Protection Clause because the policy employs a suspect classification based on religion. In contrast, The Missouri DNR argues that the Free Exercise Clause only stops the government from prohibiting the free exercise of religion but does not require that the government provide funding to religious organizations. Secondly, it argues that the State’s policy only needs to meet a rational basis level of scrutiny, as all religious groups do not constitute, in themselves, a suspect classification. Furthermore, the DNR contends that the State’s policy serves legitimate, rational bases, such as a protection against perceived or actual governmental favoritism toward particular religious denominations. At stake are the governmental benefits available to religious organizations in a wide range of contexts and the potential for organizational discrimination against third parties.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

Does the exclusion of churches from an otherwise neutral and secular aid program violate the Free Exercise and Equal Protection Clauses when the state has no valid Establishment Clause concern?


Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. (“Trinity Lutheran”) is a Lutheran church that includes within its operations a preschool and daycare center known as the Learning Center. The Learning Center is located on the church property. Although the Learning Center does not limit its participants to children of the Lutheran faith, the preschool does include religious teachings.

In 2012, Trinity Lutheran applied for a grant offered through the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (“DNR”). This DNR program provides organizations with resources to resurface their playgrounds with recycled tires. Based upon the grading criteria for the grant, Trinity Lutheran’s application was rated fifth out of forty-four submissions, out of which the DNR selected fourteen. Trinity Lutheran was informed, however, that the Learning Center’s playground was not eligible for the grant due to Article I, Section 7 of the Missouri Constitution. This provision prevents the expenditure of public money “in aid of any church.”

After receiving this denial, Trinity Lutheran brought an action in federal court against the director of the DNR, Sara Parker Pauley, in her official capacity. Trinity Lutheran alleged four claims against the Director under the court’s federal question jurisdiction and one claim under the court’s supplemental jurisdiction. Trinity Lutheran argued that the DNR’s actions had violated the federal constitution’s Equal Protection Clause, the Free Exercise Clause, the Establishment Clause, and the general right to free speech, as well as Article I, Section 7 of the Missouri Constitution.

The district court dismissed each of these allegations for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. Trinity Lutheran responded by moving for reconsideration and leave to amend its complaint. The district court in turn denied both of these motions and Trinity Lutheran appealed the decision, with the one exclusion of its free speech claim.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit decided the appeal on May 29, 2015. The court began by affirming the district court’s dismissal of the federal constitutional issues. The court concluded that past Supreme Court precedent dictated that the applicable section of the Missouri Constitution did not violate the federal constitution. The Eighth Circuit then turned to Trinity Lutheran’s state constitutional claim, again affirming the decision of the district court. The court also noted that the district court should perhaps have declined supplemental jurisdiction over this issue, in light of the dismissal of the federal claims.

Finally, the Eighth Circuit also affirmed the district’s court denial for rehearing and leave to amend the complaint. The court noted that Trinity Lutheran had requested leave to amend in order to demonstrate that the DNR had awarded this money to religious organizations in the past, in violation of the Equal Protection Clause. The Eighth Circuit concluded that the district court was correct in finding that Trinity Lutheran offered no valid reason for failing to amend their complain before a final verdict, and that there was no abuse of discretion since this new theory would have raised “unsettled questions of state law.”

Trinity Lutheran appealed to the Supreme Court, which granted certiorari on January 15, 2016.



Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia (“Trinity”) argues that, by not allowing religious organizations to benefit from the Scrap Tire Grant Program, the Department of National Resource’s (“DNR”) violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. . First, they argue that DNR’s policy amounts to religious status discrimination because it singles out and excludes religious institutions on the basis of their religious status. They emphasize that Supreme Court precedent prevents the government from “impos[ing] special disabilities” because of a group’s religious status. Trinity analogizes its case to McDaniel v. Paty, in which the Court invalidated a Tennessee statute barring ministers and priests from serving as delegates to the state’s constitutional convention. Trinity also analogizes its case to Torcaso v. Watkins, where the Court invalidated a state requirement that a notary public must profess a belief in God to hold office because such a requirement set up a religious test barring those who did not profess a belief in God. Taken together, Trinity argues, these two cases show that a law interferes with free exercise of religion if it conditions a generally available public benefit or office eligibility based on religious status. Thus, Trinity argues DNR’s categorical policy disadvantages a group of citizens based on religious status, regardless of the merits of their application, and thus “penaliz[es]” their religious faith. Trinity contends that this disadvantage has the effect of requiring religious followers to choose between their religious beliefs and participating in the community.

Sara Parker Pauley, director of the Missouri DNR, (hereinafter, “DNR”) argues that the State’s decision not to subsidize Trinity Lutheran does not violate the Free Exercise Clause because the Clause only stops the government from prohibiting the free exercise of religion but does not require that the government provide funding to religious organizations. DNR contends that Trinity misinterprets the Free Exercise Clause and ignores its text, history, and the Court’s precedent. DNR maintains that the plain language of the text limits only government action that “prohibits” the free exercise of religion. Though DNR concedes that coercive measures such as a criminal penalty on particular religious activities may give rise to a Free Exercise violation, she argues incidental effects of government programs that make practicing certain religions more difficult but do not coerce individuals into acting against their religious beliefs do not implicate the Free Exercise Clause. Furthermore, DNR notes that the government does not have an obligation to fund its citizen’s exercise of their constitutional rights; indeed, DNR notes that the Clause is written as what the government cannot do to the individual and not in terms of the entitlements that an individual may get from the government. DNR contends that Trinity’s ability to exercise its constitutional right to religion does not depend on government support and, moreover, its request for playground-resurfacing funding is secular and not a “generally available public benefit” because of the limited number of recipients. DNR analogizes Trinity’s claims to those that failed in Locke v. Davey, in which the Court held that Washington’s refusal to provide financial aid to a student pursuing a theology degree was not a Constitutional violation because of the “minimal burden” that the policy placed on the student’s right to freely exercise his religion.


Trinity also contends that DNR’s categorical ban against religious institutions constitutes a violation of the Equal Protection Clause, which requires that all persons similarly situated should be treated alike. First, Trinity contends that DNR’s policy employs a suspect classification based on religion, which they note are “presumptively invidious.” Furthermore, Trinity argues that because DNR ranked Trinity’s application fifth highest out of forty-four applications, and thus would have approved Trinity’s application but for its religious status, the church is similarly situated to other applicants that were allowed to apply.

In contrast, DNR argues that the State’s decision not to subsidize Trinity Lutheran’s playground project does not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because of the legitimate, rational bases underlying the State’s policy choice. DNR notes that when the issue has to do with social or economic legislation, the Equal Protection Clause gives states wide latitude in determining policy choices. To this end, DNR argues that the government has a legitimate interest in prohibiting the use of public resources from going to religious organizations. DNR argues that such a policy protects against governmental favoritism towards particular religious denominations, either actual or perceived.Moreover, DNR adds, this policy respects taxpayers’ freedom of religion and conscience and protects religious organizations from increased government control.


Trinity contends that the Court’s precedents follow a general principle of “neutrality” toward religion. According to Trinity, the DNR’s policy abandons neutrality in favor of “rank hostility to religion” because it imposes a special disability onto those with religious status. Trinity argues that a law must satisfy strict scrutiny if it is not neutrally or generally applied, under the Free Exercise Clause, and also under the Equal Protection Clause if based on a suspect classification, such as religion. Regarding the Free Exercise Clause, Trinity argues that the DNR’s policy is not neutrally applied because it has an express categorical exclusion based on religious status. Moreover, Trinity contends that DNR’s exclusion is not generally applicable because it only applies to religious institutions, without similar limitation to secular daycares and other eligible nonprofit organizations.

DNR first argues that Trinity mistakenly interprets the Free Exercise Clause as requiring strict neutrality between religious and non-religious groups, which it maintains the Constitution does not require. By conflating Free Exercise jurisprudence with Equal Protection jurisprudence, DNR argues, Trinity does not address the First Amendment question of whether differential treatment of religious and non-religious groups “prohibits” the free exercise of religion. In answering this question, DNR argues that the Court has repeatedly upheld, and has even required, government conduct that is non-neutral. While DNR does not dispute that the DNR’s policy is not neutral because it treats religious and non-religious organizations differently, DNR maintains that neutrality is not needed to answer whether a state’s policy has complied with the Free Exercise Clause, which only requires non-interference and not neutrality per se. Secondly, DNR argues that the appropriate level of scrutiny under an Equal Protection claim is rational basis, not strict scrutiny. DNR contends that the strict scrutiny, as the highest level of scrutiny, is only used if the governmental action distinguishes on the basis of a suspect classification. DNR points to the lack of precedent for Trinity’s argument that the class of “all religious groups” as opposed to “all non-religious groups” constitutes a suspect classification. When the Court describes “religion” as an inherently suspect classification, DNR argues, the distinction lies between religious denominations. Moreover, DNR asserts that suspect classes have historically been saddled with disabilities, unequal treatment or political powerlessness, and while individual religious classes may qualify, “all religious groups” does not. Thus, at least with respect to distinctions between religious groups versus non-religious groups, DNR argues that Locke and other Supreme Court cases point to rational basis as the appropriate level of scrutiny.



The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (“Orthodox Union”), in support of Trinity Lutheran, argues that the Missouri Constitution discriminates against religious observers. Orthodox Union posits that provisions like the one at issue here, commonly known as Blaine Amendments, were enacted due to prejudice towards certain religious groups, particularly within the context of religious schools.Furthermore, Christian Legal Society and fellow amici (“Christian Legal”) assert that if a state is allowed to deny a religiously affiliated institute a benefit, particularly a benefit relating to “safety and health,” solely due to their religious beliefs, then the state is discriminating based upon religion. In support, Christian Legal argues that by denying religious observers equal access to safety benefits, the state treats them as “second-class” citizens. The Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance (“Alliance”) provides further support for this argument, advocating that simply being denied governmental benefits degrades religious observers and introduces a stigma against them. Alliance also argues that such conduct makes it more difficult for religious organizations to carry out their charitable work, therefore dampening religious conduct.

On the other hand, Legal and Religious Historians (“Historians”), in support of DNR, argues that the alleged history of bigotry surrounding the Blaine Amendments should be considered “with caution.” Historians assert that provisions of this sort were motivated by reasons other than religious bias, and that the Missouri Constitution in particular was not based in bigotry. Similarly, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and General Synod of the United Church of Christ (“Baptist”) assert that Missouri has not engaged in religious discrimination. Rather, Baptist argues that the Missouri Constitution follows the founding father’s hesitation to use public money for religious purposes, without any bias regarding religion. Furthermore, Baptist suggests that these restrictions, rather than discriminating, actually ensure greater religious freedom by maintaining the independence of churches and preventing religious strife. Finally, the American Civil Liberties Union and fellow amici (“ACLU”), supplements this point by asserting that the use of tax funds for religious institutions would undermine the right of each individual to choose their religious affiliations, as well as to invite governmental oversight of religious activities.


The Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and fellow amici (“The Council”), in support of Trinity Lutheran, argue that a ruling adverse to Trinity Lutheran would have negative implications for religious institutes of higher education. Specifically, The Council contends that the presence of religious colleges benefits the American educational system by providing increased diversity in school options, a safe learning environment, and a focus on community service. The Council further asserts that if the government is able to deny certain benefits, such as school accreditation, based upon a college’s religious affiliation, these schools and the benefits they provide will disappear from the market. Similarly, the Association of Christian Schools International and Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (“Christian Schools”) argue that under an adverse ruling religiously affiliated schools might also lose access to government services designed to ensure student’s health, safety, and education. Christian Schools alleges that removing these benefits may limit parents’ desire and ability to send their children to religiously affiliated schools.Additionally, Alliance, in support of Trinity Lutheran, argues that religious groups often control faith-based organizations (“FBOs”). Alliance further contends that as these organizations often use government grants in their efforts to provide services for at-risk populations and that removing their eligibility for these grants will hurt the people they serve, as well as “undermine the programs’ secular purposes.”

On the other hand, LAMBDA Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc. (“LAMBDA”), in support of DNR, argues that providing public money and services to religiously affiliated organizations, such as schools, may lead to discrimination. More specifically, LAMBDA asserts that there is a national history of religious institutions that receive government funds discriminating against certain suspect groups. LAMBDA alleges that even the Learning Center’s parent handbook, although excluding certain grounds for discrimination, doesn’t mention religion, sexual orientation or gender identity. Therefore, LAMBDA argues that giving religious organizations, specifically schools, access to these funds might actually perpetuate discrimination, and that adequate safeguards are necessary to prevent this from happening.Furthermore, Baptist argues that a ruling adverse to the state of Missouri would have negative implications for state’s rights. Baptist contends that states are permitted to be more protective of the separation between church and state than the federal constitution, and that Missouri has exercised that right here. Therefore, Baptist argues that to deny Missouri and other states this freedom would implicate federalism concerns, as well as to eliminate “political accountability and judicial consistency.”

Edited by 


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