Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer (582 US ___(2017))



on writ of certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the eighth circuit

June 26, 2017

Chief Justice Roberts delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources offers state grants to help public and private schools, nonprofit daycare centers, and other nonprofit entities purchase rubber playground surfaces made from recycled tires. Trinity Lutheran Church applied for such a grant for its preschool and daycare center and would have received one, but for the fact that Trinity Lutheran is a church. The Department had a policy of categorically disqualifying churches and other religious organizations from receiving grants under its playground resurfacing program. The question presented is whether the Department’s policy violated the rights of Trinity Lutheran under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.



The Trinity Lutheran Church Child Learning Center is a preschool and daycare center open throughout the year to serve working families in Boone County, Missouri, and the surrounding area. Established as a nonprofit organization in 1980, the Center merged with Trinity Lutheran Church in 1985 and operates under its auspices on church property. The Center admits students of any religion, and enrollment stands at about 90 children ranging from age two to five.

The Center includes a playground that is equipped with the basic playground essentials: slides, swings, jungle gyms, monkey bars, and sandboxes. Almost the entire surface beneath and surrounding the play equipment is coarse pea gravel. Youngsters, of course, often fall on the playground or tumble from the equipment. And when they do, the gravel can be unforgiving.

In 2012, the Center sought to replace a large portion of the pea gravel with a pour-in-place rubber surface by participating in Missouri’s Scrap Tire Program. Run by the State’s Department of Natural Resources to reduce the number of used tires destined for landfills and dump sites, the program offers reimbursement grants to qualifying nonprofit organizations that purchase playground surfaces made from recycled tires. It is funded through a fee imposed on the sale of new tires in the State.

Due to limited resources, the Department cannot offer grants to all applicants and so awards them on a competitive basis to those scoring highest based on several criteria, such as the poverty level of the population in the surrounding area and the applicant’s plan to promote recycling. When the Center applied, the Department had a strict and express policy of denying grants to any applicant owned or controlled by a church, sect, or other religious entity. That policy, in the Department’s view, was compelled by Article I, Section 7 of the Missouri Constitution, which provides:

“That no money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect or denomination of religion, or in aid of any priest, preacher, minister or teacher thereof, as such; and that no preference shall be given to nor any discrimination made against any church, sect or creed of religion, or any form of religious faith or worship.”

In its application, the Center disclosed its status as a ministry of Trinity Lutheran Church and specified that the Center’s mission was “to provide a safe, clean, and attractive school facility in conjunction with an educational program structured to allow a child to grow spiritually, physically, socially, and cognitively.” After describing the playground and the safety hazards posed by its current surface, the Center detailed the anticipated benefits of the proposed project: increasing access to the playground for all children, including those with disabilities, by providing a surface compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990; providing a safe, long-lasting, and resilient surface under the play areas; and improving Missouri’s environment by putting recycled tires to positive use. The Center also noted that the benefits of a new surface would extend beyond its students to the local community, whose children often use the playground during non-school hours.

The Center ranked fifth among the 44 applicants in the 2012 Scrap Tire Program. But despite its high score, the Center was deemed categorically ineligible to receive a grant. In a letter rejecting the Center’s application, the program director explained that, under Article I, Section 7 of the Missouri Constitution, the Department could not provide financial assistance directly to a church.

The Department ultimately awarded 14 grants as part of the 2012 program. Because the Center was operated by Trinity Lutheran Church, it did not receive a grant.


Trinity Lutheran sued the Director of the Department in Federal District Court. The Church alleged that the Department’s failure to approve the Center’s application, pursuant to its policy of denying grants to religiously affiliated applicants, violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Trinity Lutheran sought declaratory and injunctive relief prohibiting the Department from discriminating against the Church on that basis in future grant applications.

The District Court granted the Department’s motion to dismiss.... Finding the present case “nearly indistinguishable from Locke,” the District Court held that the Free Exercise Clause did not require the State to make funds available under the Scrap Tire Program to religious institutions like Trinity Lutheran. 

The Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed....

We granted certiorari, and now reverse.


The First Amendment provides, in part, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The parties agree that the Establishment Clause of that Amendment does not prevent Missouri from including Trinity Lutheran in the Scrap Tire Program. That does not, however, answer the question under the Free Exercise Clause, because we have recognized that there is “play in the joints” between what the Establishment Clause permits and the Free Exercise Clause compels. 

The Free Exercise Clause “protect[s] religious observers against unequal treatment” and subjects to the strictest scrutiny laws that target the religious for “special disabilities” based on their “religious status.” Applying that basic principle, this Court has repeatedly confirmed that denying a generally available benefit solely on account of religious identity imposes a penalty on the free exercise of religion that can be justified only by a state interest “of the highest order.” McDaniel v. Paty, 435 U. S. 618, 628 (1978)(quoting Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U. S. 205, 215 (1972) )....

[I]n McDaniel v. Paty, the Court struck down under the Free Exercise Clause a Tennessee statute disqualifying ministers from serving as delegates to the State’s constitutional convention. Writing for the plurality, Chief Justice Burger acknowledged that Tennessee had disqualified ministers from serving as legislators since the adoption of its first Constitution in 1796, and that a number of early States had also disqualified ministers from legislative office. This historical tradition, however, did not change the fact that the statute discriminated against McDaniel by denying him a benefit solely because of his “status as a ‘minister.” McDaniel could not seek to participate in the convention while also maintaining his role as a minister; to pursue the one, he would have to give up the other. In this way, said Chief Justice Burger, the Tennessee law “effectively penalizes the free exercise of [McDaniel’s] constitutional liberties.” 

In recent years, when this Court has rejected free exercise challenges, the laws in question have been neutral and generally applicable without regard to religion. We have been careful to distinguish such laws from those that single out the religious for disfavored treatment.

For example, in Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association, 485 U. S. 439 (1988) , we held that the Free Exercise Clause did not prohibit the Government from timber harvesting or road construction on a particular tract of federal land, even though the Government’s action would obstruct the religious practice of several Native American Tribes that held certain sites on the tract to be sacred. Accepting that “[t]he building of a road or the harvesting of timber . . . would interfere significantly with private persons’ ability to pursue spiritual fulfillment according to their own religious beliefs,” we nonetheless found no free exercise violation, because the affected individuals were not being “coerced by the Government’s action into violating their religious beliefs.” The Court specifically noted, however, that the Government action did not “penalize religious activity by denying any person an equal share of the rights, benefits, and privileges enjoyed by other citizens.” 

In Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, 494 U. S. 872 (1990) , we rejected a free exercise claim brought by two members of a Native American church denied unemployment benefits because they had violated Oregon’s drug laws by ingesting peyote for sacramental purposes. Along the same lines as our decision in Lyng, we held that the Free Exercise Clause did not entitle the church members to a special dispensation from the general criminal laws on account of their religion. At the same time, we again made clear that the Free Exercise Clause did guard against the government’s imposition of “special disabilities on the basis of religious views or religious status.” 

Finally, in Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. Hialeah, we struck down three facially neutral city ordinances that outlawed certain forms of animal slaughter. Members of the Santeria religion challenged the ordinances under the Free Exercise Clause, alleging that despite their facial neutrality, the ordinances had a discriminatory purpose easy to ferret out: prohibiting sacrificial rituals integral to Santeria but distasteful to local residents. We agreed. Before explaining why the challenged ordinances were not, in fact, neutral or generally applicable, the Court recounted the fundamentals of our free exercise jurisprudence. A law, we said, may not discriminate against “some or all religious beliefs.” Nor may a law regulate or outlaw conduct because it is religiously motivated. 



The Department’s policy expressly discriminates against otherwise eligible recipients by disqualifying them from a public benefit solely because of their religious character. If the cases just described make one thing clear, it is that such a policy imposes a penalty on the free exercise of religion that triggers the most exacting scrutiny. This conclusion is unremarkable in light of our prior decisions.

Like the disqualification statute in McDaniel, the Department’s policy puts Trinity Lutheran to a choice: It may participate in an otherwise available benefit program or remain a religious institution. Of course, Trinity Lutheran is free to continue operating as a church, just as McDaniel was free to continue being a minister. But that freedom comes at the cost of automatic and absolute exclusion from the benefits of a public program for which the Center is otherwise fully qualified. And when the State conditions a benefit in this way, McDaniel says plainly that the State has punished the free exercise of religion: “To condition the availability of benefits . . . upon [a recipient’s] willingness to . . . surrender[ ] his religiously impelled [status] effectively penalizes the free exercise of his constitutional liberties.”

The Department contends that merely declining to extend funds to Trinity Lutheran does not prohibit the Church from engaging in any religious conduct or otherwise exercising its religious rights. In this sense, says the Department, its policy is unlike the ordinances struck down in Lukumi, which outlawed rituals central to Santeria. Here the Department has simply declined to allocate to Trinity Lutheran a subsidy the State had no obligation to provide in the first place. That decision does not meaningfully burden the Church’s free exercise rights. And absent any such burden, the argument continues, the Department is free to heed the State’s antiestablishment objection to providing funds directly to a church.

It is true the Department has not criminalized the way Trinity Lutheran worships or told the Church that it cannot subscribe to a certain view of the Gospel. But, as the Department itself acknowledges, the Free Exercise Clause protects against “indirect coercion or penalties on the free exercise of religion, not just outright prohibitions.”  As the Court put it more than 50 years ago, “[i]t is too late in the day to doubt that the liberties of religion and expression may be infringed by the denial of or placing of conditions upon a benefit or privilege.” Sherbert, 374 U. S., at 404.

Trinity Lutheran is not claiming any entitlement to a subsidy. It instead asserts a right to participate in a government benefit program without having to disavow its religious character. The “imposition of such a condition upon even a gratuitous benefit inevitably deters or discourages the exercise of First Amendment rights.” Sherbert, 374 U. S., at 405. The express discrimination against religious exercise here is not the denial of a grant, but rather the refusal to allow the Church—solely because it is a church—to compete with secular organizations for a grant. Trinity Lutheran is a member of the community too, and the State’s decision to exclude it for purposes of this public program must withstand the strictest scrutiny.


The Department attempts to get out from under the weight of our precedents by arguing that the free exercise question in this case is instead controlled by our decision in Locke v. Davey. It is not. In Locke, the State of Washington created a scholarship program to assist high-achieving students with the costs of post-secondary education. The scholarships were paid out of the State’s general fund, and eligibility was based on criteria such as an applicant’s score on college admission tests and family income. While scholarship recipients were free to use the money at accredited religious and non-religious schools alike, they were not permitted to use the funds to pursue a devotional theology degree—one “devotional in nature or designed to induce religious faith.”  Davey was selected for a scholarship but was denied the funds when he refused to certify that he would not use them toward a devotional degree. He sued, arguing that the State’s refusal to allow its scholarship money to go toward such degrees violated his free exercise rights.

This Court disagreed. It began by explaining what was not at issue. Washington’s selective funding program was not comparable to the free exercise violations found in the “Lukumi line of cases,” including those striking down laws requiring individuals to “choose between their religious beliefs and receiving a government benefit.” At the outset, then, the Court made clear that Locke was not like the case now before us.

Washington’s restriction on the use of its scholarship funds was different. According to the Court, the State had “merely chosen not to fund a distinct category of instruction.”  Davey was not denied a scholarship because of who he was; he was denied a scholarship because of what he proposed to do—use the funds to prepare for the ministry. Here there is no question that Trinity Lutheran was denied a grant simply because of what it is—a church.

The Court in Locke also stated that Washington’s choice was in keeping with the State’s antiestablishment interest in not using taxpayer funds to pay for the training of clergy; in fact, the Court could “think of few areas in which a State’s antiestablishment interests come more into play.” The claimant in Locke sought funding for an “essentially religious endeavor . . . akin to a religious calling as well as an academic pursuit,” and opposition to such funding “to support church leaders” lay at the historic core of the Religion Clauses. Here nothing of the sort can be said about a program to use recycled tires to resurface playgrounds.

Relying on Locke, the Department nonetheless emphasizes Missouri’s similar constitutional tradition of not furnishing taxpayer money directly to churches. But Locke took account of Washington’s antiestablishment interest only after determining, as noted, that the scholarship program did not “require students to choose between their religious beliefs and receiving a government benefit.”  As the Court put it, Washington’s scholarship program went “a long way toward including religion in its benefits.” Students in the program were free to use their scholarships at “pervasively religious schools.” Davey could use his scholarship to pursue a secular degree at one institution while studying devotional theology at another. He could also use his scholarship money to attend a religious college and take devotional theology courses there. The only thing he could not do was use the scholarship to pursue a degree in that subject.

In this case, there is no dispute that Trinity Lutheran is put to the choice between being a church and receiving a government benefit. The rule is simple: No churches need apply.


The State in this case expressly requires Trinity Lutheran to renounce its religious character in order to participate in an otherwise generally available public benefit program, for which it is fully qualified. Our cases make clear that such a condition imposes a penalty on the free exercise of religion that must be subjected to the “most rigorous” scrutiny. 

Under that stringent standard, only a state interest “of the highest order” can justify the Department’s discriminatory policy.  Yet the Department offers nothing more than Missouri’s policy preference for skating as far as possible from religious establishment concerns.  In the face of the clear infringement on free exercise before us, that interest cannot qualify as compelling. As we said when considering Missouri’s same policy preference on a prior occasion, “the state interest asserted here—in achieving greater separation of church and State than is already ensured under the Establishment Clause of the Federal Constitution—is limited by the Free Exercise Clause.” 

The State has pursued its preferred policy to the point of expressly denying a qualified religious entity a public benefit solely because of its religious character. Under our precedents, that goes too far. The Department’s policy violates the Free Exercise Clause.

*  *  *

Nearly 200 years ago, a legislator urged the Maryland Assembly to adopt a bill that would end the State’s disqualification of Jews from public office:

“If, on account of my religious faith, I am subjected to disqualifications, from which others are free, . . . I cannot but consider myself a persecuted man. . . . An odious exclusion from any of the benefits common to the rest of my fellow-citizens, is a persecution, differing only in degree, but of a nature equally unjustifiable with that, whose instruments are chains and torture.” Speech by H. M. Brackenridge, Dec. Sess. 1818, in H. Brackenridge, W. Worthington, & J. Tyson, Speeches in the House of Delegates of Maryland, 64 (1829).

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources has not subjected anyone to chains or torture on account of religion. And the result of the State’s policy is nothing so dramatic as the denial of political office. The consequence is, in all likelihood, a few extra scraped knees. But the exclusion of Trinity Lutheran from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, solely because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution all the same, and cannot stand.

The judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.