Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer: Government money should not fund churches

Click here for highlights from the oral arguments.

On April 19, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty responded to the arguments in the U.S. Supreme Court case of Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer. The BJC filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, explaining how Missouri’s constitutional ban on state funding of religion protects religion.

Holly Hollman, general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee and author of the brief, gave the following remarks to reporters outside the Court:

 “Missouri has drawn the right line to protect against the government funding of religious exercise.

The Missouri constitution prohibits state aid to churches. That is a protection for religious liberty that stems from the lessons of history. Baptists and other religious dissenters in colonial America fought to ensure that the coercive power of the government was not used to force taxpayers to pay for churches. The result has been a rich flowering of religion and religious institutions, funded by voluntary gifts and offerings.

Though there are many ways that religion and government cooperate, it is a fundamental principle of religious liberty in this country that the government does not fund religious exercise. Churches are by definition expressions of religion — organized for religious exercise. That’s why churches are, and should be, given special treatment. It is a necessary protection for religious liberty, not a mark of hostility or discrimination against religion.

Religion has a special place in our constitutional tradition, a place that is protected by separating the institutions of religion and government. The U.S. Supreme Court has never upheld direct government grants to churches, much less required a state to provide such funding.

This case is about whether the state has to pay for the property improvements of a church, despite nearly 200 years of precedent and many practical considerations that argue otherwise.”

Preventing taxpayer money from funding churches is a key protection for religious liberty, according to the brief filed at the U.S. Supreme Court by the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty in this case. The brief makes it clear that the First Amendment does not require state governments to fund houses of worship.

In Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer (which was originally known as Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Pauley), a Missouri church is seeking government funds from a state program that awards a limited number of grants for playground improvements. The federal and state constitutions prohibit any government establishment of religion, and the Missouri Constitution clearly states that no money taken from the “public treasury, directly or indirectly” can be used “in aid of any church, sect or denomination of religion.”

The BJC brief reviews the Founders’ fight to avoid tax support for churches in the United States. “The historical fight for disestablishment, led by Baptists and other religious dissenters, is well documented,” the brief states. “Disestablishment ensured that churches would not be funded through the coercive power of the state, but through the voluntary offerings of adherents, thus providing a constraint on government and a measure of religious liberty for individuals — to fund or refuse to fund religious institutions — that had long been denied.”

Missouri categorically excluded churches from participating in its playground resurfacing program, and the BJC brief says doing so is firmly rooted in the state constitution. “It allows the state to avoid the risk of funding religion or policing the line between religious and nonreligious activity on church facilities,” the brief states.

The church claims it should be eligible for government funding because the playground materials are secular, but “[c]hurch-owned and operated facilities are not readily segregated between religious use and secular use devoid of religious import,” according to the brief. The extent to which a ministry is funded through offerings or other church-related income sources is a matter of church autonomy, and judicial attempts to regulate or distinguish a church’s religious activities from its secular activities compromises that autonomy.

“The issue is not whether the playground surface is inherently religious, but it’s whether the state government must fund an upgrade to a church playground despite a state constitutional ban on funding churches,” Hollman said.

The Baptist Joint Committee is supported by 15 Baptist organizations, as well as churches and individuals across the country, including in the state of Missouri. The General Synod of the United Church of Christ joined the BJC’s brief in this case.

The Supreme Court was expected to set oral arguments for Trinity Lutheran in the fall of 2016, but the case was heard April 19, 2017. 

Read the BJC’s April 19 statement.

Click here for the BJC’s news release on the brief in 2016.

Visit our litigation page to learn more about our history working in the courts.

New video:
General Counsel Holly Hollman reacts to oral arguments in the Trinity Lutheran Church case on April 19, 2017.

General Counsel Holly Hollman previews the case why preventing taxpayer money from funding churches is a key protection for religious liberty. 

Read the BJC’s amicus brief

See post-argument photos


Holly Hollman on Slate’s Amicus podcast with Dahlia Lithwick (2017)

trinity lutheran podcast strip graphic
BJC’s Holly Hollman and Jennifer Hawks on the BJC podcast (2016)

Additional reading:

Holly Hollman for Religion News Service (2017):
To avoid government meddling, the state should not fund churches

Holly Hollman on SCOTUSblog:
Ban on state funding of churches protects independence

Hollman Report:
Protecting the unique legal status of churches

Hollman Q&A with Word & Way
Holly Hollman and the Trinity Lutheran case

Blog posts:

Transcript highlights from today’s oral argument in Trinity Lutheran

BJC’s Hollman: For churches, government funding can bring government regulation

BJC files brief with Supreme Court in church funding case


 Note about the name of the case:
When the Supreme Court agreed to hear this case in 2016, it was known as Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc., v. Pauley. The name “Pauley” referred to Sara Parker Pauley, the director of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, which is being sued by the church. Missouri elected a new governor in November 2016, and in January 2017 he appointed a new director to the department: Carol Comer. The case name is now Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc., v. Comer, reflecting that change in leadership.

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