1.What is the case about? What were the key issues?
The American Constitution recognizes and upholds freedom to exercise one’s religious practices and beliefs, as provided for in the First Amendment. This constitutional provision is best exemplified by the Free Exercise Clause. Also known as the Free Speech Clause, this item of the American Constitution is a very contentious issue as was evidenced by Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer. Trinity Lutheran Church had successfully applied for a licensed to operate a day care and preschool known as The Learning Center. The center required to resurface playgrounds and hence applied for a grant from the Missouri DNR (Department of Natural Resources) which gave funds for such activities (Scotusblog). In this case, the DNR provides grants to qualified parties to enable them buy recycled tires which they use to resurface playgrounds. However, the DNR decline Trinity’s application on grounds that it contravened the Missouri Constitution. Section 7 of Article 1 of the Missouri Constitution states, “no money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, section or denomination of religion.” (cited in Bittker, Idleman and Ravitch 896).
The DNR argued that because Trinity Church is a religious institution, its application for funds to finance a non-religious, secular project meant that its application could not be considered. However, Trinity read discrimination after this failed application (Schwinn). Accordingly, Trinity filed a lawsuit against DNR on grounds that the decision to not honor their application was in contravention of the protection of freedom of speech and religion under the First Amendment, as well as the Equal Protection Clause as provided for by the Fourteenth Amendment.
- What did Supreme Court majority decide and why? In this answer, be sure to include discussion on all opinions written and correctly identify who wrote them.
The Supreme Court voted 7-2 in favor of the position held by Trinity. In the majority opinion read by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Supreme Court held that excluding the decision by the DNR to exclude trinity church form their aid program was in itself a violation of the freedom to exercise one’s religious practices and beliefs as guaranteed by the First Amendment. Based on the precedent set by the First Amendment clause of Free Exercise, laws aimed at hindering an unavailable benefit due to religious status are deemed unconstitutional (Oyez). On the other hand, the court suggested that neutral laws could be upheld even though they hinder religion.
Nonetheless, the Supreme Court needed to qualify if the law as it related to the case contravenes all or some religious beliefs. In this case, it was established that the Missouri Constitution as it relates to not offering grants to religious organizations contravenes the Free Exercise Clause that is enshrined in the First Amendment. This is because the policy as practiced by the Missouri DNR was seen to have been discriminatory on religious grounds even though the organization qualified for the grant. Justice Clarence Thomas’ opinion partly agreed with the majority ruling by the court. He argued that the free Exercise Clause as provided for by the First Amendment was opposed to discrimination on religious grounds. While past precedent gave the impression that a state could “disfavor” religion with a view to avoid religion-state conflicts, such a precedent had no place in the current case. In another written opinion by Justice Gorsuch, he concurred with the ruling by the court by opining that the majority ruling by the Supreme Court on this case pointed towards a discrepancy between discriminatory laws on the basis of religious use or religious status, arguing that the Free Exercise Clause did not support such (Scotusblog).
Justice Thomas concurred in part with this opinion, while Justice Stephen Breyer wrote argued that crafting of the First Amendment was not with a view to hindering religious organizations from accessing grants provided by the government. He opined that the benefit in financing the project would have been for the safety and health of children, and as such, the case fell in a similar category to government-provided benefits accessible to religious organizations. On her part, Justice Sotomayor dissented to the majority vote by arguing that the case elicited serious concerns about the Establishment Clause, a position that Justice Ruth Ginsburg was also agreeable to.
- If you were a member of the Supreme Court, how would you rule in this case, and why? Which of the written opinions would you be closest to thus, be most likely to join?
If I were a member of the Supreme Court, I would be inclined to rule in favor of a position that respected the separation of church and state. This would involve respecting the Establishment Clause which was specifically created to create such a distinction. Like many states, Missouri has also established a rule that rules against funding of religious organizations. While this is likely to be viewed as a discriminatory move, I am of the view that such a distinction actually offers states a legitimate choice to overcome potential conflicts with the Church, and hence respect the Establishment Clause. In this respect, my written submission would mirror that of Justice Sonia Sotomayor who found that the decision by the DNR not to honor the application of Trinity Church for funding was not discriminatory but instead, a move meant to prevent conflicts between Church and State. Moreover, the Free Exercise Clause as enshrined in the First Amendment also permits states to absolve certain applicable laws to religious organizations.
Bittker Boris I, Scott Idleman C and Frank Ravitch S. Religion and the State in American Law.
Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Print. https://books.google.co.ke/books?id=pduCCgAAQBAJ&pg=PA896&lpg=PA896&dq=no+money+shall+ever+be+taken+from+the+public+treasury,+directly+or+indirectly,+in+aid+of+any+church,+section+or+denomination+of+religion.&source=bl&ots=P0JDXYjleS&sig=wlKMkDrEVdgRx8C2ouMO5m5mggw&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiJ7cnnlNfXAhWHJuwKHXVDCv8Q6AEIVDAH#v=onepage&q=no%20money%20shall%20ever%20be%20taken%20from%20the%20public%20treasury%2C%20directly%20or%20indirectly%2C%20in%20aid%20of%20any%20church%2C%20section%20or%20denomination%20of%20religion.&f=false
“Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer.” n.d.,
Schwinn Steven D. Religious Freedom: Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer. April
- Web. 24 November 2017.
“Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer.” Oyez, 24 Nov. 2017,