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Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer

Citation. 137 S. Ct. 2012 (2017)
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Brief Fact Summary.

The petitioner, church, claimed that the Department’s strict policy of categorically disqualifying churches and other religious organizations from receiving grants under its playground resurfacing program violates the Constitution.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

The Free Exercise Clause protects against indirect coercion or penalties on the free exercise of religion, not just outright prohibitions.


The Missouri Department of Natural Resources offers state grants to help public and private schools, nonprofit daycare centers, and other nonprofit entities purchase rubber playground surfaces made from recycled tires. Trinity Lutheran Church applied for such a grant for its preschool and daycare center and would have received one, but for the fact that it is a church. The Department had a policy of categorically disqualifying churches and other religious organizations from receiving grants under its playground resurfacing program. Due to its limited resources, the Department cannot offer grants to all applicants and so awards them on a competitive basis to those scoring highest based on several criteria, such as the poverty level of the population in the surrounding area and the applicant’s plan to promote recycling.


Does the state department’s policy of categorically disqualifying churches and other religious organizations from receiving grants violate the Free Exercise Clause?


Yes, the Department’s policy violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment because Trinity Lutheran is put to the choice between being a church and receiving a government benefit. Their rule is simple: No churches need apply. The State expressly requires Trinity Lutheran to renounce its religious character to participate in an otherwise generally available public benefit program, for which it is fully qualified. Such a condition imposes a penalty on the free exercise of religion in violation of the Constitution.


Justice Sotomayor

The Court dismantles a core protection for religious freedom provided in the First Amendment. It holds not just that a government may support houses of worship with taxpayer funds, but that it must do so whenever it decides to create a funding program. History shows that the Religion Clauses separate the public treasury from religious coffers as one measure to secure the kind of freedom of conscience that benefits both religion and government. If this separation means anything, it means that the government cannot tax its citizens and turn that money over to houses of worship. The Court today blinds itself to the outcome this history requires and leads us instead to a place where separation of church and state is a constitutional slogan, not a constitutional commitment.


Justice Gorsuch

The Free Exercise Clause guarantees the free exercise of religion, not just the right to inward belief. This Court has long explained that government may not devise mechanisms, overt or disguised, designed to persecute or oppress a religion or its practices. Generally, the government may not force people to choose between participation in a public program and their right to free exercise of religion. It does not matter whether the Court describe that benefit as closed to status of being a church or closed to people who do Lutheran things. It is free exercise either way.


Trinity Lutheran is not claiming any entitlement to a subsidy. It is merely asserting a right to participate in a government benefit program without having to disavow its religious character. The imposition of such a condition upon even a gratuitous benefit inevitably deters or discourages the exercise of First Amendment rights. The express discrimination against religious exercise here is not the denial of a grant, but rather the refusal to allow the Church – solely because it is a church – to compete with secular organizations for a grant. The Department’s policy expressly discriminates against otherwise eligible recipients by disqualifying them from a public benefit solely because of their religious character. It technically gives the church a choice: either to participate in an otherwise available benefit program or remain a religious institution. Though Trinity Lutheran is free to continue operating as a church, that freedom comes at the cost of automatic and absolute exclusion from the benefits of a public program.

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