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Should the Supreme Court Prioritize the Safety of Non-Religious Preschoolers over Religious Ones?

Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer

Won U.S. Supreme Court
Last Updated

Summary

Trinity Lutheran Church is located in Columbia, Missouri. The church operates a preschool called The Learning Center, which has a playground on site for use by students and the community at large. In 2012, Trinity applied for a playground resurfacing grant from the Department of Natural Resources of the State of Missouri. The grant was part of the state’s Scrap Tire Program that recycles scrap tire material in an attempt to reduce the amount of tires in landfills. Trinity’s playground was surfaced with pea gravel that was hard on the children if they fell, and it kept migrating away from the slides and other play structures. Trinity wanted a grant to resurface its playground with a pour-in-place rubber surface made from recycled tires.

The Department received 44 applications in 2012. It ranked Trinity’s application fifth, and it gave out 14 grants that year. But the Department denied a grant to Trinity solely because the preschool was operated by a church, basing its decision on a state constitutional clause that prohibited aid to churches.

Trinity filed suit in 2013, seeking to protect the safety of its students, as well as the community members who use the playground after hours and on weekends. After the Court of Appeals ruled against Trinity, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

On June 26, 2017, Trinity Lutheran Church won its case at the Supreme Court. The Court ruled 7-2 that the government cannot exclude churches and other faith-based organizations from a secular government program simply because of their religious identity, setting a broad precedent for religious freedom.

In October 2018, children at the Learning Center were finally able to enjoy a new, safe playground surface. 

Our role in this case

Alliance Defending Freedom represented Trinity Lutheran Church all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. We defended the church’s freedom to participate equally in neutral government programs and not be discriminated against solely because of the church’s religious identity.

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Legal Documents

Court
Title
Date
U.S. Supreme Court
6/26/2017
U.S. Supreme Court
4/18/2017
U.S. Supreme Court
8/12/2016
U.S. Supreme Court
6/28/2016
U.S. Supreme Court
4/14/2016
U.S. Supreme Court
11/4/2015
Appellate Court
8/11/2015
Appellate Court
5/29/2015
Appellate Court
4/28/2014
Trial Court
2/4/2014
Trial Court
9/26/2013
Trial Court
1/25/2013

Frequently Asked Questions

What was Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer about?

Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Missouri, operates a nonprofit preschool and daycare center called The Learning Center, which sought to increase the safety of its playground with a pour-in-place rubber surface. So, the church sought to participate in a program through the state of Missouri that gives grants to nonprofit organizations to reuse scrap tires for playgrounds. Out of the 44 organizations that applied for the playground surface grant, Trinity Lutheran’s Learning Center application was ranked 5th in meeting the qualifications. But they were denied solely because they are run by a church.

Organizations shouldn’t be denied a generally available public benefit just because they are religious. That’s why Alliance Defending Freedom represented the church all the way to the Supreme Court.

What is Missouri’s Scrap Tire Grant Program?

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources runs the Scrap Tire Grant Program which recycles old tires for use on playground surfaces. The program reimburses non-profit organizations for purchasing these rubber playground surfaces in order to make the playgrounds safer for the children who play on it.

What is a generally available public benefit?

Public benefits—such as food-stamps, police and fire services, bridge and road repair, etc.—are benefits available to everyone. The state of Missouri’s decision to bar The Learning Center’s participation in the Scrap Tire Program is like a city government setting up fire stations (a public benefit), and then telling fire crews not to help a church that’s in flames.

What was the decision in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer?

The 7-2 majority held that Missouri’s policy violated Trinity Lutheran’s rights under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. This win at the Supreme Court means that the government cannot discriminate against religious organizations and exclude them from receiving a generally available public benefit simply because they are religious.

When was the Trinity Lutheran case decided?

The Supreme Court issued its ruling in favor of Trinity Lutheran Church on June 26, 2017.

How did the justices vote in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer?

The Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favor of Trinity Lutheran, with Chief Justice John Roberts writing the majority opinion joined by Justices Kennedy, Thomas, Alito, Kagan, and Gorsuch. Justices Thomas and Gorsuch each wrote concurring opinions, and Justice Breyer filed a separate opinion concurring in judgment. Justice Sotomayor filed the dissenting opinion in which Justice Ginsburg joined.


Additional Resources

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Biographies

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David A. Cortman
David A. Cortman
Senior Counsel, Vice President of U.S. Litigation
David A. Cortman serves as senior counsel and vice president of U.S. litigation with Alliance Defending Freedom.
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Kristen K. Waggoner
Kristen K. Waggoner
CEO, President, and General Counsel
As the CEO, president, and general counsel of Alliance Defending Freedom, Kristen Waggoner leads the faith-based legal organization in protecting fundamental freedoms and promoting the inherent dignity of all people throughout the U.S. and around the world.