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

UPDATE: The U.S. Supreme Court will hear this case on April 19, 2017.

Preventing taxpayer money from funding churches is a key protection for religious liberty, according to a brief filed at the U.S. Supreme Court by the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. 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.”

“Houses of worship and the government have separate funding sources, and they have different roles and responsibilities,” said Holly Hollman, general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee. “Restrictions on aid to religious institutions are not suspect, but they are an effective means to protect religious liberty and the separation of church and state.”

“Although our constitutional tradition allows for limited government funding for some activities of religiously affiliated nonprofits, churches are treated differently, and that’s good for churches,” Hollman continued. “All houses of worship receive special legal status to protect their autonomy and religious liberty.”

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.

BJC Executive Director Brent Walker said the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment simply does not permit outright government funding or grants to churches and other houses of worship. “We do not look to government subsidies to build houses of worship; we should not fund capital improvements that way either,” Walker 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 will be heard April 19, 2017. Return to this page for the latest information.

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

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

In this video, General Counsel Holly Hollman explains the BJC’s amicus brief and why preventing taxpayer money from funding churches is a key protection for religious liberty. 

Read the BJC’s amicus brief


trinity lutheran podcast strip graphic
BJC’s Holly Hollman and Jennifer Hawks on the case

Additional reading:

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:
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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