Brief Fact Summary.
The Missouri Department of Natural Resources offers state grants to help nonprofit entities and schools buy rubber playground surfaces made from recycled tires. Trinity Lutheran Church applied for the grant but was rejected because of the Department’s policy of categorically disqualifying churches.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
The Free Exercise Clause “protects religious observers against unequal treatment” and subjects to the strictest scrutiny laws that target the religious for “special disabilities” based on their “religious status.”
Under the program, the federal funds are distributed to state and local governmental agencies, which in turn lend educational materials and equipment to public and private schools, including parochial schools.View Full Point of Law
The Trinity Lutheran Church Child Learning Center is a preschool and daycare center and serves working families. The Center includes a playground, of which its entire surface is coarse pea gravel. Because of the danger of gravels on youngsters, the Center wanted to replace the pea gravel with rubber surface. When the Church applied the Department’s funding program, the Department rejected because it had a strict policy of denying grants to any applicant owned by a church. The Church sued the Department in federal district court, alleging that the Department’s failure to approve the Church’s application violates the Free Exercise Clause.
Does the Department’s policy of disqualifying churches from receiving state grants violate the rights of Trinity Lutheran under the Free Exercise Clause?
Yes, the Department’s policy of denying grants to churches violates the First Amendment because it requires Trinity Lutheran to renounce its religious character to participate in an otherwise generally available public benefit program, for which it is fully satisfied. Such a condition imposes a penalty on the free exercise of religion that must be subjected to strict scrutiny and the Department has failed to meet this standard.
The majority has essentially created a rule that provides that the government may draw lines on the basis of religious status to grant a benefit to religious persons but it may not draw lines on such basis when doing so would further the interests the Religion Clauses protect in other ways. Such a rule is in no way supported by the Religion Clauses nor by precedents. The majority’s decision neglects centuries of history and tradition and dangers the government’s ability to remain secular
There is no need to distinguish between laws that discriminate on the basis of religious status and religious use. The Free Exercise Clause guarantees the free exercise of religion, not just the right to belief or status. It does not matter whether the Court describes the public benefit as closed to status or closed to use.
Only a state interest “of the highest order” can justify the Department’s discriminatory policy under the strict scrutiny. However, the Department has only offered the state of Missouri’s preference for skating and nothing about the State’s religious establishment concerns. Such interest cannot qualify as compelling. Denying Trinity Lutheran from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, solely because it is a church, violates the Free Exercise Clause and goes against the Constitution.