Information on Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer

Decision undermines religious liberty protections, adds confusion to law

Hollman: Court ignores distinct nature of churches in Trinity Lutheran Church decision

Note: The BJC filed a friend-of-the-court brief in this case, explaining how Missouri’s constitutional ban on state funding of religion protects religion. Click here to read Holly Hollman’s article about the decision.

WASHINGTON – On June 26, 2017, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty responded to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer.

The following statement is from Holly Hollman, general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty:  

“The U.S. Supreme Court today rejects an important aspect of America’s history of protecting religious liberty. By treating a state ban on aid to churches as a mark of discrimination, the Court’s decision upends precedent and adds confusion to the law. 

While claiming to stand up for churches, the Court ignores their distinct nature as centers of religious exercise. ‘No aid’ provisions reflect the hard-fought battles of Baptists and other religious dissenters that abolished government controls over religion and secured church autonomy. 

The decision does not create a free exercise right to government funding of religion, but it unnecessarily blurs the line that ensures religion flourishes on its own. ”

Click here to view this release on its own page.

Additional resources:

Click here for highlights from the oral arguments.

Hollman’s May/June column: Church, state and scrap tires: What’s at stake?

Hollman’s remarks to reporters after the oral argument in the case on April 19, 2017.

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.

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 on decision:
Decidedly narrow, deeply troubling

Holly Hollman on oral argument:
Church, state and scrap tires: 
What’s at stake? 

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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