Trinity Lutheran Church, after its application was denied solely because it was a church, challenged the Department policy alleging violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.
Under the strict or more rigorous scrutiny standard, only a state interest of the highest order can justify the Department’s discriminatory policy.
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, the petitioner, applied for the grant for its preschool and daycare center but was rejected solely because it was a church. Churches did not qualify from receiving grants under the Department policy. The Church challenged the policy alleging violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.
Does the Department policy that rejects a church solely because of its religious character from obtaining the state grant violate the First Amendment?
Yes, discriminating against otherwise eligible recipients by disqualifying churches from a public grant solely because of their religious character imposes a penalty on the free exercise of religion that triggers the most strict scrutiny. Because the Department failed to meet the strict scrutiny standard, its policy violates the First Amendment.
This case is about whether Missouri can refuse to fund improvements to the facilities the Church uses to practice and spread its religious views. The Establishment Clause does not allow Missouri to grant the Church’s funding request because the Church uses the daycare center to further its religious mission. The Court’s precedents also state that the State need not fund the training of a religious groups that will teach their faith and carry out their mission. Missouri’s alleged interest in skating as far as possible from religious establishment concerns is legitimate and thus the Department’s policy must be held constitutional.
The Court in Everson stated that cutting off church schools from general government services such as public funds as ordinary police and fire protection is not the purpose of the First Amendment. Yet Missouri would cut Trinity Church off from participation in a general program designed to improve the health and safety of children.
By forcing the church to choose from participating in an otherwise available benefit program or remain a religious institution, the Department has punished the free exercise of religion. Liberties of religion and expression are infringed by the denial of or placing of conditions upon a benefit or privilege. Moreover, the Department offered nothing more than Missouri’s policy preference for skating as far as possible from religious establishment concerns for its justification of the discriminatory policy. Thus, the policy at issue violates the First Amendment.