Neither religious status, nor the exercise of religion can be the sole reason for the denial of a public benefit

trinity lutheran churchTrinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, MO. Image Credit: Ryan Faumliner, AP

During my final semester at UWM, I took a course in studying the SCOTUS.  In addition to reading scholarly work on the justices and the history of the court and its work, we chose from a variety of live cases to study.  By the end of the semester, we had three cases that we as students would argue before a mock supreme court consisting of our peers.

Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc v. Comer was one of them.

Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia (Trinity), now a merged entity consisting of a non-profit children’s learning center (learning center) and the Church, embarked on a project to resurface the pavement of the playground that exists on their property.  This would fulfill two functions:  Bring them into compliance with the Adults with Disabilities Act as part of their goal to earn accreditation for the learning center.

In 2014, the Missouri legislature renewed a recycled tire scrap grant managed by the The Missouri Department of Natural Resources (MDNR).  This grant would be available to any applicant who met a specific criteria.  Given the worthiness of its accreditation goal, Trinity applied for the grant, only to be denied on the grounds that Article I, Section 7 of the Missouri Constitution forbids the treasury from providing any financial assistance to a religious institution.  Trinity responded by suing the MDNR for denying their application on the grounds of their religious status.  Both the District Court and the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the MDNR’s denial citing Locke v. Davey, where the Court ruled that Mr. Locke could be denied grant money from a state-created scholarship program on the grounds that his major of study was devotional in nature.

Unhappy with that result, Trinity asked the SCOTUS to hear it, to which they agreed.

While the ruling itself is 53 pages, it didn’t take the court much analysis to decide it.  Cut-and-dry, their decision was based on the idea that the state’s tire recycling grant was available to any applicant who met certain criteria, which Trinity met.  Their analysis concludes that when the state offers a general public benefit, which the scrap tire grant was, that discrimination on the sole basis of religion violates the First Amendment.  The learning center’s history began with it as a non-profit organization whose mission wasn’t any different than any other preschool program in the nation, but because it merged with a church, it invited scrutiny.

As I was reading the Trinity ruling, I also opened up Locke because I was curious as to why two different courts would affirm, citing the same ruling.  If this was a major policy decision (I.E. same-sex marriage, abortion, or perhaps the teacher’s union case out of California), it would make sense to take this.

While Locke’s wasn’t based on where he went to school, the court decided against him because his choice of major.  The court’s contention was that by the state providing a monetary grant to a student whose educational pursuit was devotional in nature, it would have a hand in indirectly aiding religion by funding a student in pursuit of its studies.  The casual observer would put two and two together and conclude that the only difference the two is that the student’s education was directly related to religion, whereas the scrap tire grant money would be applied to something whose purpose was-in-fact secular (resurfacing a playground that happened to be sitting on church property).

In their dissents, Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor excoriated the majority for what amounted to be a rant against the Court’s violating the separation of church and state with this decision.  The vast majority of cases where public money going toward something dealing with religion, Ginsburg typically sides with ‘the separation of church and state,’ so it’s no surprise that she dissents here.  If nothing else, I give her credit for being consistent in her dissents, even though her arguments seem to miss the mark, and seem to be borderline activist.  The two justices make the argument that since the learning center is basically run by the Church, and the learning center incorporates religion and spirituality into their lessons and activities that it wouldn’t be proper to award Trinity this grant money.

Of course, since we have a new justice on the Court, and since conservatives have minted him as “as close to Scalia as we’ll ever get,” I had to partake.

His commentary was logically the same as Scalia’s from Locke, but developing an argument evaluating how someone exercises religion different than their identification as a religious person.  He also asks a question that is similar to one that was used when my class did its mock oral arguments:  “Is it a religious group that built the playground?  Or did a group build the playground so it might be used to advance a religious mission.”

It’s reasonable to assume that the learning center went with the contractor whose price fit within their budget.

It’s reasonable to conclude that a playground is an area that allows children to get their excess energy out, have fun, run around, and get some exercise.

While Article I, Section 7 of the Missouri Constitution was written to protect public money from being used to support or favor anything involving religion as either a status or a practice, and similarly the First Amendment restricts the federal government in the same way, the Supreme Court solved this with their decision to struck down a law that prohibited a minster from being a delegate to the Tennessee Constitutional Convention.

The key point to be taken from this:  The government cannot force you to alter your religious status for the sake of qualifying for a public benefit.  The Tennessee minister shouldn’t have to suppress or relinquish his faith simply to hold the office of a delegate, nor should the Church forsake its religious status to accept money available to qualified applicants.  Furthermore, in both instances, neither entity sought to use religious status to gain a special favor; it just happened to be the only disqualifying variable.

On a side note, while I was writing this, I noticed that the SCOTUS will be taking up the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop.  I’m not sure if it’s a coincidence that certiorari was granted after this decision was announced, but given the Court’s decision here, I would be curious to see how precedent will be applied.