Does Missouri violate the First Amendment by denying churches governmental aid awarded with neutral criteria and a secular purpose?
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. See Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Pauley, 788 F.3d 779, 781 (8th Cir. 2015). The Learning Center is located on the church property. See id. Although the Learning Center does not limit its participants to children of the Lutheran faith, the preschool does include religious teachings. See id. at 782.
In 2012, Trinity Lutheran applied for a grant offered through the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (“DNR”). See id. This DNR program provides organizations with resources to resurface their playgrounds with recycled tires. See id. 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. See id. 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. See id. This provision prevents the expenditure of public money “in aid of any church.” See id.
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. See id. at 781. Trinity Lutheran alleged four claims against the Director under the court’s federal question jurisdiction and one claim under the court’s supplemental jurisdiction. See id. at 782. 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. See id.
The district court dismissed each of these allegations for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. See id. Trinity Lutheran responded by moving for reconsideration and leave to amend its complaint. See id. 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. See id.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit decided the appeal on May 29, 2015. See id. at 779. The court began by affirming the district court’s dismissal of the federal constitutional issues. See id. at 783–85. The court concluded that past Supreme Court precedent dictated that the applicable section of the Missouri Constitution did not violate the federal constitution. See id. at 785. The Eighth Circuit then turned to Trinity Lutheran’s state constitutional claim, again affirming the decision of the district court. See id. at 786–88. 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. See id. at 786.
Finally, the Eighth Circuit also affirmed the district’s court denial for rehearing and leave to amend the complaint. See id. at 788–90. 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. See id. at 788. 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.” See id. at 788–90.
Trinity Lutheran appealed to the Supreme Court, which granted certiorari on January 15, 2016.
POTENTIAL VIOLATION OF THE FREE EXERCISE CLAUSE
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. See Brief for Petitioner, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia at 11. 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. See id. at 11–12. They emphasize that Supreme Court precedent prevents the government from “impos[ing] special disabilities” because of a group’s religious status. See id. 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. See id. at 12. 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. See id. at 12–13. 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. See id. at 14. 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. See id. Trinity contends that this disadvantage has the effect of requiring religious followers to choose between their religious beliefs and participating in the community. See id. at 17.
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. See Brief for Respondent, Sara Parker Pauley at 5. DNR contends that Trinity misinterprets the Free Exercise Clause and ignores its text, history, and the Court’s precedent. See id. DNR maintains that the plain language of the text limits only government action that “prohibits” the free exercise of religion. See id. 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. See id. at 7–8. 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. See id. at 8–9. 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. See id. at 11; 21–22. 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. See id. at 12–13.
POTENTIAL VIOLATION OF THE EQUAL PROTECTION CLAUSE
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. See id. at 22. First, Trinity contends that DNR’s policy employs a suspect classification based on religion, which they note are “presumptively invidious.” See id. at 23. 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. See id.
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. See Brief for Respondent at 30. 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. See id. To this end, DNR argues that the government has a legitimate interest in prohibiting the use of public resources from going to religious organizations. See id. at 44, 45. DNR argues that such a policy protects against governmental favoritism towards particular religious denominations, either actual or perceived. See id. at 45, 46. Moreover, DNR adds, this policy respects taxpayers’ freedom of religion and conscience and protects religious organizations from increased government control. See id. at 45, 50–51.
LEVEL OF SCRUTINY FOR CATEGORICAL EXCLUSION
Trinity contends that the Court’s precedents follow a general principle of “neutrality” toward religion. See Brief for Petitioner at 15. 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. See id. at 16, 19–20. 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. See id. at 27. 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. See id. at 21. 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. See id.
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. See Brief for Respondent at 25. 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. See id. at 29. In answering this question, DNR argues that the Court has repeatedly upheld, and has even required, government conduct that is non-neutral. See id. at 25. 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. See id. at 29. Secondly, DNR argues that the appropriate level of scrutiny under an Equal Protection claim is rational basis, not strict scrutiny. See id. at 31. 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. See id. 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. See id. at 31, 33. When the Court describes “religion” as an inherently suspect classification, DNR argues, the distinction lies between religious denominations. See id. at 34. 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. See id. at 35–36. 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. See id. at 32, 34–35.
EFFECT ON RELIGIOUS OBSERVERS
The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (“Orthodox Union”), in support of Trinity Lutheran, argues that the Missouri Constitution discriminates against religious observers. See Brief of Amicus Curiae Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (“Orthodox Union”), in Support of Petitioner at 4–5. 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. See id. at 13–18. 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. See Brief of Amici Curiae Christian Legal Society et al. (“Christian Legal”), in Support of Petitioner at 4. In support, Christian Legal argues that by denying religious observers equal access to safety benefits, the state treats them as “second-class” citizens. See id. at 7–8, 13. 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. See Brief of Amicus Curiae Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance (“Alliance”), in Support of Petitioner at 20–23. Alliance also argues that such conduct makes it more difficult for religious organizations to carry out their charitable work, therefore dampening religious conduct. See id. at 23–26.
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.” See Brief of Amici Curiae Legal and Religious Historians (“Historians”), in Support of Respondent at 3–5. 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. See id. at 16–17. 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. See Brief of Amici Curiae Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and General Synod of the United Church of Christ (“Baptist”), in Support of Respondent at 24. 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. See id. at 28–31. Furthermore, Baptist suggests that these restrictions, rather than discriminating, actually ensure greater religious freedom by maintaining the independence of churches and preventing religious strife. See id. at 27–28. 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. See Brief of Amici Curiae American Civil Liberties Union et al. (“ACLU”), in Support of Respondent at 10–13.
EFFECT ON THIRD PARTIES
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. See Brief of Amici Curiae Council for Christian Colleges and Universities et al. (“The Council”), in Support of Petitioner at 7. 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. See id. at 7–8. 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. See id. at 17. 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. See Brief of Amici Curiae Association of Christian Schools International and Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (“Christian Schools”), in Support of Petitioner at 21–27. Christian Schools alleges that removing these benefits may limit parents’ desire and ability to send their children to religiously affiliated schools. See id. at 25. Additionally, Alliance, in support of Trinity Lutheran, argues that religious groups often control faith-based organizations (“FBOs”). See Brief of Alliance at 5. 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.” See id. at 26–29.
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. See Brief of Amicus Curiae LAMBDA Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc. (“LAMBDA”), in Support of Respondent at 4. More specifically, LAMBDA asserts that there is a national history of religious institutions that receive government funds discriminating against certain suspect groups. See id. at 9. 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. See id. at 8. 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. See id. at 11. Furthermore, Baptist argues that a ruling adverse to the state of Missouri would have negative implications for state’s rights. See Brief of Baptist at 22–24. 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. See id. 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.” See id.
- Robert Barnes, Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Case Over Separation of Church and State, The Washington Post (Jan. 15, 2016).
- Valerie Richardson, Playground Spat Looms As Key Church-State Separation Case, The Washington Times (Jan. 20, 2016).