Monday, September 26, 2016

SCOTUS to decide Trinity vs Pauley (Missouri). . .

The issue is whether the exclusion of churches from an otherwise neutral and secular aid program violates the Free Exercise and Equal Protection Clauses when the state has no valid Establishment Clause concern.  Read the SCOTUS Blog here.

Trinity Lutheran Church applied for Missouri's Scrap Tire Grant Program so that it could provide a safer playground for children who attend its daycare and for neighborhood children who use the playground after hours--a purely secular matter. But the state denied Trinity's application solely because it is a church. The Eighth Circuit affirmed that denial by equating a grant to resurface Trinity's playground using scrap tire material with funding the devotional training of clergy. The Eighth Circuit's decision was not faithful to this Court's ruling in Locke v. Davey, 540 U.S. 712 (2004), and deepened an existing circuit conflict. Three lower courts--two courts of appeals and one state supreme court--interpret Locke as justifying the exclusion of religion from a neutral aid program where no valid Establishment Clause concern exists. In contrast, two courts of appeals remain faithful to Locke and the unique historical concerns on which it relied.

According to the court filings, the Missouri DNR had ranked the Trinity proposal as fifth best out of 44 applications. The state rejected the application solely because the applicant is a church. That creates the kind of clean factual record that the Supreme Court likes.

This is from Missouri's brief opposing Supreme Court review:  "Although on other criteria Trinity Lutheran ranked high among the 44 applicants, the Department declined to award a grant to Trinity Lutheran because the grant would have been 'money ... taken from the public treasury ... in aid of [a] church.'"   In other words, the application was denied solely because the applicant was a church.

The Court took this case in part because there was a split in the circuit court rulings -- different appellate courts ruled differently to apply the standard. It could just be that the Court took this case to overturn the ruling below.

One more thing is worth noting.  Although Missouri is defending its law, the state may not be adverse to losing this case. The state will receive needed clarity regarding the law in either case. Further, the fact that the state told the congregation that it was being excluded for no reason other than its being a church is significant and made it easy for the church to bring a clean constitutional challenge. The state could have clouded its decision and refrained from admitting that the denial was due to the fact that the applicant was a church and that the state was so frank in its admission indicates perhaps the state is open to an interpretation of the law more friendly to churches.


Carl Vehse said...

This case does raises some questions. TLC's argument is that they should be given Missouri State funds for a safety upgrade to the playground which serves neighborhood (secular) children after hours.

How does the TLC or its insurer deal with the liability for after hours injuries or safety of neighborhood children on the church property playground?

Would the publicly-funded playground improvements for after hours public accessibility bring the church under additional requirements or obligations for lighting, security, etc.?

Is there a minimum fraction of time a church (or any private) facility is accessible to the secular public that must be met before public funds may used to improve that facility?

Would the public funds have to be repaid if the playground or facility later becomes more restricted to only church or private use?

If a Muslim organization were to bring their children, wearing tshirts or carrying banners promoting Islam, would or could they be restricted from after hours access to the playground by TLC?

John Joseph Flanagan said...

Expect more legislation and more court decisions to be unfriendly to Christian churches. Despite the Constitution, there are those in authority who can twist the interpretations to win. We have already entered a new time zone, an era of postChristian animosity in our land.