WHERE THE RUBBER MEETS THE ROSARY: The Supreme Court Hears Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer

Does a playground for two-year-olds advance a religious purpose just because it is run by a church? Is the government justified in denying funding to a church to build that playground, even when the government would provide funding for the exact same playground if it were built by a secular organization? The case of Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, being heard this week at the Supreme Court, addresses these questions. In other words, when is a playground more than just a playground?

Used tire scraps – which can be recycled and turned into soft, safe surfaces for playgrounds – are instead routinely discarded in landfills. This not only creates unnecessary waste, it also means that playgrounds are instead covered in cement and other hard, unsafe surfaces for kids. In an effort to kill two birds with one stone, the state of Missouri created the Scrap Tire Grant Program (STGP), a program designed to reimburse non-profit who purchase used tire scraps for their playgrounds. Trinity Lutheran Church, which also runs a religious preschool and daycare center, applied to the STGP to obtain reimbursement for this very purpose.

Despite Trinity’s application ranking fifth among the forty-four applicants for a grant – high enough where the application was surely to be approved – the state of Missouri rejected Trinity’s bid. It did so solely on the basis that the Missouri Constitution forbids public funding of religious organizations. Trinity sued, claiming violations of the First Amendment’s Free Exercise clause and the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection clause, but it lost in both the district and circuit courts (the panel split 2-1). Cert was granted, and the Supreme Court hears argument this Wednesday, April 19th.

No one disputes that the funds would be used for a seemingly secular purpose: a playground. In fact, it is a playground that children of the community at large also use after school hours and on weekends. However, the government essentially states that it can exclude the church from eligibility entirely because of the Establishment Clause concerns implicated by government funding of religious organizations, even if the conduct at issue by the church is not overtly religious in nature.

This case essentially presents a battle between 1) a state’s freedom to protect its citizens against Establishment Clause concerns and 2) religious organizations’ rights under the U.S. Constitution.  One one hand, the religious liberty side says that religious groups are not seeking special treatment and instead simply do not want to become “second-class citizens” under the law. On the other hand, Missouri argues that every state needs room to protect its citizens from  religious encroachment, in order to preserve the separation between church and state. Both sides have interesting points, and the case essentially presents two favorite conservative causes, state’s rights and religious liberty, and puts them at odds with one another.

Thus, not surprisingly, the case makes for strange bedfellows. The ACLU and certain religious groups are both supporting the government, while many other religious groups of varying faiths are supporting a Lutheran church receiving government funding, which in other contexts might produce outrage by other religious groups. Moreover, one religious liberty scholar supporting Trinity Church even cited Romer v. Evans, a landmark gay rights case, as one of the grounds on which the church could win.

That scholar is Mark Rienzi, professor at Catholic University and Senior Counsel at the Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty. Rienzi and the Beckett Fund are frequently involved in religious liberty cases at the Supreme Court, they wrote an amicus brief for Trinity Church in this case, and Mark graciously agreed to speak with me about this case.

Rienzi essentially asserts that this is a classic discrimination claim – the church is being denied a benefit solely because of its status as a religious organization, and the state admits it. That, to Rienzi, is a lot like other discrimination cases, such as Romer, where the Supreme Court struck down on Equal Protection grounds Colorado’s constitutional amendment preventing the state from recognizing homosexuality as a protected class. As Rienzi stated in our conversation:

“The high level principle is the government can’t exclude you from equal participation based on your status. The core of Romer was that principle. The government can’t exclude you from equal participation based on your status and yet that’s precisely what the state of Missouri is admitting it’s doing to religious groups [in Trinity]. And that that just seems obviously impermissible.”

To be sure, Rienzi also believes that Romer is just one of the ways in which the church can win, and that it also has a strong Free Exercise claim. But, the comparison between religious liberty and gay rights certainly caught my eye.

Ultimately, the most persuasive argument I heard from Rienzi was his comparison to FEMA’s response after Hurricane Sandy. When entire town blocks were destroyed, FEMA did not exclude synagogues and churches from its rebuilding efforts, but rather it helped rebuild these religious organizations just like any other entities that were damaged. As Rienzi stated to me:

“Hurricane Sandy in some towns wiped out the whole block. It wipes out the candy store and the library and the synagogue and something else. And FEMA is going in with grant money to help everybody pump the water out and repair their places. One view of the world says, ‘Oh, you can help the candy store. And you can help the library, it’s a public thing. And you can help the movie theater. But skip the synagogue and go to the next one.’

FEMA, to their credit, came around to the correct answer, which is ‘No, we’re not helping the synagogue in any special treatment for religion kind of way. We’re helping the synagogue because it’s one of the things on the block that got wiped out. We’re helping everything on the block that got wiped out.’ That sort of equal treatment for religion – not treating religion as something that needs to be segregated or mistreated, but instead as something that can participate on equal terms with everything else – that’s what the constitution requires and that’s what Missouri’s getting wrong here.”

That analogy underscores the fundamental point being made: just because an organization is religious does not mean that providing it with government funding will inherently erode the wall between church and state. We aren’t dealing with government funding of new prayer books, we are dealing with tire scraps for a preschool playground. As I said above, sometimes a playground is just a playground.

The case is essentially the polar opposite of a prior free exercise case, Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990). There, when an Oregon man was denied unemployment compensation due to his religious use of peyote, the Supreme Court held that neutral laws of general applicability do not violate the Free Exercise clause, even when they incidentally restrict religious conduct. Thus, the peyote ban was constitutional.

The Trinity case is basically the exact opposite – here, the religious organization is engaging in neutral conduct (getting tire scraps for a playground), yet the government is treating it differently solely on the basis of religion. It remains to be seen whether the Court will in turn apply strict  scrutiny or will instead – like in Smith – opt to apply a much lower standard.

Moreover, the case is complicated by a last minute decision by the State of Missouri – under a new administration – to reverse course and grant STGP eligibility for religious organizations. This decision, issued on Friday, only five days before oral argument, does not appear to moot the issues, but it does potentially undercut the government’s argument that the exclusion of religious organizations is necessary to preserve the wall between church and state in Missouri.

How this case falls is obviously anyone’s guess, but it will likely turn on how well Trinity Church can craft a workable rule in its favor. If Trinity were to win, where would the line be drawn? Could governments bar funding for overtly religious conduct but not purely secular conduct? Could governments ban funding for chapel benches but not playground benches? Could it ban funding for matzah but not wonder bread? I think that Trinity has a very compelling argument in the playground context, but crafting a general rule is clearly the thorniest aspect of their position. To that end, Missouri certainly has the easier argument: a bright-line rule banning government funding of religious organizations is simple, it is workable, and it avoids having lower courts sorting out its Malbec from its Manischewitz.

Ultimately, only god knows how this one will end.

Thank you again to Mark Rienzi for speaking with me about this case. I really appreciate it.

Author: RMLockman

Civil rights attorney. Views expressed are mine only.

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