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The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment protects 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, the United States Supreme Court has 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.
Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. (Trinity) operates a licensed preschool and daycare called The Learning Center that was initially opened as a non-profit corporation but merged with Trinity in 1985. The Learning Center has an open admissions policy and incorporates daily religious instruction into its programs. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) offers Playground Scrap Tire Surface Material Grants that provide funds for qualifying organizations to purchase recycled tires to resurface playgrounds. Trinity applied for such a grant but was denied because Article I, Section 7 of the Missouri Constitution states, “no money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, section or denomination of religion.” Trinity sued and argued that the denial of its application violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as well as the First Amendment’s protections of freedom of religion and speech. The district court granted Missouri DNR Director Pauley’s motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, and Trinity moved for reconsideration and to amend its complaint to include allegations that such grants had previously been given to religious organizations. The district court denied the motions, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed the dismissal and the denial of the motions to reconsider and amend the complaint.
Does the exclusion of churches from an otherwise neutral and secular aid program violate the First Amendment’s guarantee of free exercise of religion and the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause?
The Supreme Court reversed the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit's judgment upholding the Missouri Department of Natural Resources' decision, and remanded the case, holding that: the Missouri Department of Natural Resources violated a church's rights under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment when it decided that the church was ineligible under Mo. Const. art. I, § 7 to participate in a program that offered reimbursement grants to qualifying nonprofit organizations that purchased playground surfaces made from recycled tires; the Department’s policy discriminated against otherwise eligible recipients by disqualifying them from a public benefit solely because of their religious character, and in doing so, imposed a penalty on the free exercise of religion; the State's discrimination against religious exercise was not the denial of a grant, but the refusal to allow the church—solely because it was a church—to compete with secular organizations for a grant.