“No churches need apply.”
That is how the Supreme Court characterized a Missouri grant program that deemed religious institutions ineligible for funding. The phrase recalls a shameful period in American history where anti-Irish and anti-Catholic sentiment pervaded American discourse and employers openly discriminated against these individuals.
Americans like to think that such days are behind them. Yet the state of Missouri discriminated against religious applicants to a public grant program until Monday when, at the close of its October 2016 term, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the constitutional principle that the government may not penalize the free exercise of religion without an especially compelling rationale.
The case, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, involved a state-run grant program in Missouri that reimburses non-profit organizations for resurfacing their playgrounds with safer, environmentally-friendly scrap tire shreds.
The Trinity Lutheran Church Child Learning Center, a preschool and daycare center, applied for the grant. While the state ranked Trinity Lutheran’s application fifth among the 44 applicants, it ultimately deemed the Center ineligible for funding due to its affiliation with the Trinity Lutheran Church. As the state explained, Missouri’s constitution prohibits it from “directly or indirectly” spending treasury funds “in aid of any church, sect, or denomination of religion.”
The stakes in this case may not seem especially high. As Chief Justice Roberts noted, the only real consequence of Trinity Lutheran’s grant denial may be “a few extra scraped knees.” The triviality of the case's fact pattern belies its legal significance.
Writing for the Court, Justice Roberts declared that when the state deliberately excludes religious institutions from a generally-available public benefit, it burdens the free exercise of religion.
Non-religious recipients, on the other hand, did not face this borden under Missouri’s program. They could continue to carry out their missions—be they promoting capitalism or communism, fighting against war or for a strong national defense, defending life or reproductive rights—without jeopardizing their receipt of public funding.
By singling out religious institutions for detrimental treatment, grant restrictions like Missouri’s plainly penalize the exercise of religion. And, according to the Supreme Court, penalizing such institutions based solely on their religious status “is odious to our Constitution . . . and cannot stand.”
The case is a win not only for religious institutions, but for those who oppose religious discrimination in any form.