Trinity Church operates on its church premises a licensed preschool and daycare called the Learning Center. The Center was initially established as a stand-alone, non-profit corporation, but in 1985, it merged and became a part of the Trinity Lutheran Church.  The Learning Center has an open admissions policy, but it is firmly committed to an evangelical mission and its daily religious instruction teaches children about the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources sponsors a program whereby qualifying applicants can receive grants to resurface playgrounds with a rubberized product created from recycled tires. The program, called the Playground Scrap Tire Surface Material Grants, is a solid waste management program.  Trinity Church made application for a Scrap Tire grant to resurface its playground. The DNR denied the application claiming the grant of such benefits would violate the Missouri Constitution’s prohibition against state aid of any kind to a religious institution. Missouri’s Constitution does contain a strong prohibition against any direct state aid to religion:  “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.” (Art. I, § 7).

Trinity Church filed suit claiming that the state’s practice of denying the church access to these safety benefits for its children, while allowing secular schools to participate in the program was discriminatory. It made the somewhat novel argument that the Missouri Constitution must yield to the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition against hostility to religion.  The district court dismissed the church’s lawsuit. It appealed to the Eighth Circuit, where the court reaffirmed the district court’s ruling and held:

We conclude without hesitation that the long established constitutional policy of the State of Missouri, which insists upon a degree of separation of church and state to probably a higher degree than that required by the First Amendment, is indeed a ‘compelling state interest in the regulation of a subject within the State’s constitutional power’ … That interest, in our judgment, satisfies any possible infringement of the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment or of any other prohibition in the Constitution of the United States.[1]

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in this case on April 19, 2017.  Judging by the questions from the bench, it now appears likely that the Court will rule against the State of Missouri.

A ruling for Trinity Church could have far-reaching implications for churches and church-operated ministries.  In particular, a ruling striking down the Missouri policy would open wide the gate for churches to compete with their non-religious counterparts for equal access to government benefits.

So-called “separation doctrine” cases have for decades been a source of consternation for the Court, and the Trinity Church case is no exception. With the exception of Justices Ginsberg and Sotomayor, the Court took to task the arguments presented by counsel for the State of Missouri.

Justice Stephen Breyer asked whether the U.S. Constitution would allow a state to declare that it wouldn’t provide a church with police or fire protection.  If not, then how does the Constitution then allow Missouri to deny money for a new playground surface to a daycare center, whose students could face all kinds of potential hazards – ranging from a skinned knee to tetanus and a broken leg – from the older, less safe playground?

For many religious ministries, applying for a state grants have required them to walk a tightrope, and in some instances promising that none of the money received would indirectly benefit any program in which inculcates a Christian world-view.  A decision in favor of Trinity would loosen these restrictions and level the “playground” to allow churches and ministries to compete fairly for state benefits.

[1] The Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Pauley, 788 F.3d 779, 784 (8th Cir. 2015).