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Case

Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer

Last Updated: 5/29/2020

Overview

What's at stake

  • The freedom of churches to be treated equally by the government
  • The freedom from discrimination against churches solely because of their religious identity
  • The freedom of churches and ministries to participate in neutral government grant programs on the same basis as all others
  • The right of churches to be treated as full members of the community and not be discriminated against or disadvantaged because of their religious faith

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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Resources

Legal Documents

Court
Title
Date
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Justice and Freedom Fund", "FileName": "https://adflegal.blob.core.windows.net/mainsite-new/docs/default-source/documents/legal-documents/trinity-lutheran-church-of-columbia-v.-comer/trinity-lutheran-church-of-columbia-v-pauley---merits-amicus-brief---justice-and-freedom-fund.pdf", "Date": "11/1/2017 5:07:59 PM"}, {"Court": "SupremeCourt", "Title": "Amicus brief in support of petitioner - Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America", "FileName": "https://adflegal.blob.core.windows.net/mainsite-new/docs/default-source/documents/legal-documents/trinity-lutheran-church-of-columbia-v.-comer/trinity-lutheran-church-of-columbia-v-pauley---merits-amicus-brief---union-of-orthodox-jewish-congregations-of-america.pdf", "Date": "11/1/2017 5:08:00 PM"}, {"Court": "SupremeCourt", "Title": "Brief in opposition to petition for certiorari", "FileName": "https://adflegal.blob.core.windows.net/mainsite-new/docs/default-source/documents/legal-documents/trinity-lutheran-church-of-columbia-v.-comer/trinity-lutheran-church-of-columbia-v-pauley---brief-in-opposition-to-petition-for-certiorari.pdf", "Date": "11/1/2017 5:07:58 PM"}, {"Court": "AppellateCourt", "Title": "State's answer brief filed with 8th Circuit", "FileName": "https://adflegal.blob.core.windows.net/mainsite-new/docs/default-source/documents/legal-documents/trinity-lutheran-church-of-columbia-v.-comer/trinity-lutheran-church-of-columbia-v-pauley---state-answer-brief-filed-with-8th-circuit.pdf", "Date": "11/1/2017 5:07:57 PM"}, {"Court": "SupremeCourt", "Title": "Amicus brief in support of petitioner - 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Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention", "FileName": "https://adflegal.blob.core.windows.net/mainsite-new/docs/default-source/documents/legal-documents/trinity-lutheran-church-of-columbia-v.-comer/trinity-lutheran-church-of-columbia-v-pauley---amicus-brief---ethics-and-religious-liberty-commission-of-the-southern-baptist-convention.pdf", "Date": "11/1/2017 5:07:58 PM"}, {"Court": "SupremeCourt", "Title": "Petition for writ of certiorari", "FileName": "https://adflegal.blob.core.windows.net/mainsite-new/docs/default-source/documents/legal-documents/trinity-lutheran-church-of-columbia-v.-comer/trinity-lutheran-church-of-columbia-v-pauley---petition-for-writ-of-certiorari.pdf", "Date": "11/1/2017 5:08:00 PM"}, {"Court": "TrialCourt", "Title": "Dismissal order", "FileName": "https://adflegal.blob.core.windows.net/mainsite-new/docs/default-source/documents/legal-documents/trinity-lutheran-church-of-columbia-v.-comer/trinity-lutheran-church-of-columbia-v-pauley---dismissal-order.pdf", "Date": "11/1/2017 5:07:57 PM"}, {"Court": "TrialCourt", "Title": "Denial of motion for reconsideration", "FileName": "https://adflegal.blob.core.windows.net/mainsite-new/docs/default-source/documents/legal-documents/trinity-lutheran-church-of-columbia-v.-comer/trinity-lutheran-church-of-columbia-v-pauley---denial-of-motion-for-reconsideration.pdf", "Date": "11/1/2017 5:07:57 PM"}, {"Court": "SupremeCourt", "Title": "Reply brief of petitioner", "FileName": "https://adflegal.blob.core.windows.net/mainsite-new/docs/default-source/documents/legal-documents/trinity-lutheran-church-of-columbia-v.-comer/trinity-lutheran-church-of-columbia-v-pauley---reply-brief-of-petitioner.pdf", "Date": "11/1/2017 5:08:00 PM"}, {"Court": "SupremeCourt", "Title": "Amicus brief in support of petitioner - 18 states", "FileName": "https://adflegal.blob.core.windows.net/mainsite-new/docs/default-source/documents/legal-documents/trinity-lutheran-church-of-columbia-v.-comer/trinity-lutheran-church-of-columbia-v-pauley---merits-amicus-brief---18-states.pdf", "Date": "11/1/2017 5:07:58 PM"}, {"Court": "SupremeCourt", "Title": "Amicus brief in support of petitioner - Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance", "FileName": "https://adflegal.blob.core.windows.net/mainsite-new/docs/default-source/documents/legal-documents/trinity-lutheran-church-of-columbia-v.-comer/trinity-lutheran-church-of-columbia-v-pauley---merits-amicus-brief---institutional-religious-freedom-alliance.pdf", "Date": "11/1/2017 5:07:59 PM"}, {"Court": "SupremeCourt", "Title": "Amicus brief in support of petitioner - USCCB et al.", "FileName": "https://adflegal.blob.core.windows.net/mainsite-new/docs/default-source/documents/legal-documents/trinity-lutheran-church-of-columbia-v.-comer/trinity-lutheran-church-of-columbia-v-pauley---merits-amicus-brief---usccb-et-al.pdf", "Date": "11/1/2017 5:08:00 PM"}, {"Court": "SupremeCourt", "Title": "Amicus brief in support of petitioner - Christian Legal Society et al.", "FileName": "https://adflegal.blob.core.windows.net/mainsite-new/docs/default-source/documents/legal-documents/trinity-lutheran-church-of-columbia-v.-comer/trinity-lutheran-church-of-columbia-v-pauley---merits-amicus-brief---cls-et-al.pdf", "Date": "11/1/2017 5:07:59 PM"}, {"Court": "AppellateCourt", "Title": "Opening brief filed with 8th Circuit", "FileName": "https://adflegal.blob.core.windows.net/mainsite-new/docs/default-source/documents/legal-documents/trinity-lutheran-church-of-columbia-v.-comer/trinity-lutheran-church-of-columbia-v-pauley---opening-brief-filed-with-8th-circuit.pdf", "Date": "11/1/2017 5:07:57 PM"}, {"Court": "SupremeCourt", "Title": "Amicus brief in support of petitioner - Cato Institute", "FileName": "https://adflegal.blob.core.windows.net/mainsite-new/docs/default-source/documents/legal-documents/trinity-lutheran-church-of-columbia-v.-comer/trinity-lutheran-church-of-columbia-v-pauley---merits-amicus-brief---cato-institute.pdf", "Date": "11/1/2017 5:07:58 PM"}, {"Court": "AppellateCourt", "Title": "En banc denial", "FileName": "https://adflegal.blob.core.windows.net/mainsite-new/docs/default-source/documents/legal-documents/trinity-lutheran-church-of-columbia-v.-comer/trinity-lutheran-church-of-columbia-v-pauley---en-banc-denial.pdf", "Date": "11/1/2017 5:07:57 PM"}, {"Court": "SupremeCourt", "Title": "Amicus brief in support of petitioner - 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Liberty Counsel and National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference/Conela", "FileName": "https://adflegal.blob.core.windows.net/mainsite-new/docs/default-source/documents/legal-documents/trinity-lutheran-church-of-columbia-v.-comer/trinity-lutheran-church-of-columbia-v-pauley---merits-amicus-brief---liberty-counsel-and-national-hispanic-christian-leadership-conference-conela.pdf", "Date": "11/1/2017 5:07:59 PM"}, {"Court": "SupremeCourt", "Title": "Petitioners' reply brief filed with U.S. Supreme Court", "FileName": "https://adflegal.blob.core.windows.net/mainsite-new/docs/default-source/documents/legal-documents/trinity-lutheran-church-of-columbia-v.-comer/trinity-lutheran-church-of-columbia-v-pauley---petitioners'-reply-brief-filed-with-u-s-supreme-court.pdf", "Date": "11/1/2017 5:08:00 PM"}, {"Court": "SupremeCourt", "Title": "Amicus brief in support of petitioner - Becket Fund for Religious Liberty", "FileName": "https://adflegal.blob.core.windows.net/mainsite-new/docs/default-source/documents/legal-documents/trinity-lutheran-church-of-columbia-v.-comer/trinity-lutheran-church-of-columbia-v-pauley---merits-amicus-brief---becket-fund-for-religious-liberty.pdf", "Date": "11/1/2017 5:07:58 PM"}, {"Court": "SupremeCourt", "Title": "Amicus brief in support of petitioner - Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission", "FileName": "https://adflegal.blob.core.windows.net/mainsite-new/docs/default-source/documents/legal-documents/trinity-lutheran-church-of-columbia-v.-comer/trinity-lutheran-church-of-columbia-v-pauley---merits-amicus-brief---ethics-and-religious-liberty-commission.pdf", "Date": "11/1/2017 5:07:59 PM"}, {"Court": "SupremeCourt", "Title": "Amicus brief in support of petitioner - American Center for Law and Justice", "FileName": "https://adflegal.blob.core.windows.net/mainsite-new/docs/default-source/documents/legal-documents/trinity-lutheran-church-of-columbia-v.-comer/trinity-lutheran-church-of-columbia-v-pauley---merits-amicus-brief---american-center-for-law-and-justice.pdf", "Date": "11/1/2017 5:07:58 PM"}, {"Court": "SupremeCourt", "Title": "Amicus brief in support of petitioner - Bronx Household of Faith", "FileName": "https://adflegal.blob.core.windows.net/mainsite-new/docs/default-source/documents/legal-documents/trinity-lutheran-church-of-columbia-v.-comer/trinity-lutheran-church-of-columbia-v-pauley---merits-amicus-brief---bronx-household-of-faith.pdf", "Date": "11/1/2017 5:07:58 PM"}]}

Biographies

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.

Kristen K. Waggoner

General Counsel

Kristen K. Waggoner serves as General Counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom. Her role includes oversight of the U.S. legal division, a team of 100 attorneys and staff who engage in litigation, public advocacy, and legislative support.


Additional Resources

 

Video: Why the Trinity Lutheran Supreme Court Case Matters

Video: Meet Trinity Lutheran Preschool

SCOTUSblog docket page: Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer

 
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