The people's voice of reason

Has there been a particularly interesting Court case in the recent months?

Actually there has. Many of the Court cases involving religion are establishment clause cases where there is an attempt to separate any activity that seems to tie a governmental entity to a religious group. Many such cases have involved the display of Christian or Jewish symbols on city owned property especially during the Christmas or Hanukkah seasons. What has been very rare have been cases involving the Free Exercise of Religion clause.

Of interest is the Trinity Lutheran Church of Colombia, Inc v Comer, Director, Missouri Department of Natural Resources. This case stems from an issue in 2012 and was decided just a few months ago.

Trinity Lutheran Child Learning Center was initially a nonprofit that functioned as a day care and a pre-school. The Center later merged with Trinity Lutheran Church. In 2012, the Center wanted to participate in Missouri’s Scrap Tire Program which would allow the gravel surface where the play equipment was located to be replaced by a pour in rubber surface. The program was run by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and offered reimbursement grants to non-profits using surfaces made from recycled tires. The Department strictly denied grants to religious entities. Fourteen of forty-four applications were approved, but Trinity Lutheran was denied even though they had fallen as number five on the list.

Trinity Lutheran sued in Federal District Court asserting that the denial violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. The District Court dismissed the case saying the free exercise of religion was not denied and an appeal to the Eighth Circuit affirmed the decision of the lower Court.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion with Justices Kennedy, Alito, Kagan, Thomas, Breyer and Gorsuch in agreement in part or with concurring opinions.

The United States Supreme Court has asserted “that denying a generally available benefit solely on account of religious identity imposes a penalty on the free exercise of religion.” The policy of the Department discriminates against recipients that would otherwise be eligible simply because of their religious association. The Court used as case law in McDaniel v. Paty, 435 U.S. 618, the rationale that it penalizes a institution in its free exercise of religion. The Department argued that the State had no obligation to provide the benefit and thus did not burden the free exercise rights. The decision went on to say that the Free Exercise clause protects against “indirect coercion or penalties on the free exercise of religion, not just outright prohibitions”, as decided in Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Assn., 485 U. S. 439. Noting McDaniel, the Department causes Trinity Lutheran to make a choice as to whether they wish to participate in a benefit program or remain a religious organization. Such conditioning becomes a penalty to freely exercise religion. The State of Missouri in trying to sidestep any Establishment issue has infringed on the free exercise of religion.

The decision of the Eighth Circuit was reversed and remanded.

This article is informative only and not meant to be all inclusive. Additionally this article does not serve as legal advice to the reader and does not constitute an attorney- client relationship. The reader should seek counsel from their attorney should any questions exist.

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