SCOTUS to Consider Trinity Lutheran Church v Pauley—Public Funding for Religion
The U.S. Supreme Court recently agreed to consider Trinity Lutheran Church v Pauley, a case involving whether the state of Missouri violated the Constitution when it denied the Trinity Lutheran Church’s application for Missouri’s Scrap Tire Grant Program so that it could resurface its playground. The Court’s decision should resolve a circuit split regarding whether the Supreme Court’s ruling in Locke v. Davey, 540 U.S. 712 (2004), justifies the exclusion of religion from a neutral aid program where no valid Establishment Clause concern exists.
Facts of Trinity Lutheran Church v Pauley
Trinity Lutheran Church (Trinity) applied for a state grant to fund the installation of safe rubber playground surfaces that would protect daycare and neighborhood children who use its playground. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) denied the application exclusively because Trinity is a church. In its denial, the DNR stated that “Article I, Section 7 of the Missouri Constitution specifically provides that ‘no money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, section or denomination of religion.’”
Trinity filed suit alleging the denial violated the Constitution’s Free Exercise Clause and Equal Protection Clause. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeal affirmed the district court’s order dismissing the church’s lawsuit. It held that excluding churches from an otherwise neutral and secular aid program was not unconstitutional, equating a grant to resurface Trinity’s playground using scrap tire material with funding the devotional training of clergy.
Issues Before the Supreme Court
The Supreme Court has agreed to consider the following question in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Pauley: “Whether the exclusion of churches from an otherwise neutral and secular aid program violates the Free Exercise and Equal Protection Clauses when the state has no valid Establishment Clause concern.”
In addressing the above question, the justices should provide much-needed clarity regarding how lower court’ should apply Locke. In its decision, the Eighth Circuit specifically noted Justice Scalia’s dissent in the case, concluding that it appeared that was “the direction the [Supreme] Court recently seems to be going.” Justice Scalia wrote:
When the State makes a public benefit generally available, that benefit becomes part of the baseline against which burdens on religion are measured; and when the State withholds the benefit from some individuals solely on the basis of religion, it violates the Free Exercise Clause no less than if it had imposed a special tax.
The Supreme Court has not squarely addressed the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause in the context of a religious land use case. As a result, the Court’s decision in this case will likely be added to the body of law considered by the lower courts when deciding such issues.
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Preamble to the Bill of Rights
Congress of the United States begun and held at the City of New-York, on Wednesday the fourth of March, one thousand seven hundred and eighty nine.
THE Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.