Written by Don Byrd
Tomorrow, the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear oral argument in the case of Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer. As I posted earlier in this preview, the case could significantly impact church-state law with regard to government funding of houses of worship. Now, however, the argument could focus on an unanticipated issue, as the Governor of Missouri has announced a new policy that reverses the ban on houses of worship receiving state grants at the heart of the dispute. As law professor Marty Lederman asks in his blog post on this potential shift: Is the Trinity Lutheran Case Moot?
The Supreme Court asked parties for their views on whether the Governor’s announcement affects the case.
[T]he conservative Alliance Defending Freedom, which is representing the church, urged the court to hear and rule on its case. It reasoned that the new policy does not reverse its five-year-old denial, can be changed by a future administration, and still leaves intact the state Supreme Court’s view that the Missouri constitution forbids giving public funds to religious institutions.
The state attorney general’s office agreed, urging the court in a separate letter to hear and decide the case — in part because the governor’s new policy is likely to face a challenge from Missouri taxpayers who do not want their money funding religious institutions. It authorized the former solicitor general, who served in a Democratic administration, to defend the now-defunct policy.
But two liberal groups, the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told the justices Tuesday that the case should be declared moot — an action that would leave the last lower court ruling against the church intact. The church, they said, “has received all the relief that it has requested — eligibility to compete for future grants from the Department of Natural Resources…. There is no live controversy.”
Stay tuned tomorrow to see how the Court handles this development.