Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer,
582 U.S. ___ (2017)

Annotate this Case



No. 15–577



on writ of certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the eighth circuit

[June 26, 2017]

Justice Sotomayor, with whom Justice Ginsburg joins, dissenting.

To hear the Court tell it, this is a simple case about recycling tires to resurface a playground. The stakes are higher. This case is about nothing less than the relationship between religious institutions and the civil government—that is, between church and state. The Court today profoundly changes that relationship by holding, for the first time, that the Constitution requires the government to provide public funds directly to a church. Its decision slights both our precedents and our history, and its reasoning weakens this country’s longstanding commitment to a separation of church and state beneficial to both.


Founded in 1922, Trinity Lutheran Church (Church) “operates . . . for the express purpose of carrying out the commission of . . . Jesus Christ as directed to His church on earth.” Our Story, (all internet materials as last visited June 22, 2017). The Church uses “preaching, teaching, worship, witness, service, and fellowship according to the Word of God” tocarry out its mission “to ‘make disciples.’ ” Mission, (quoting Matthew 28:18–20). The Church’s religious beliefs include its desire to “associat[e] with the [Trinity Church Child] Learning Center.” App. to Pet. for Cert. 101a. Located on Church property, the Learning Center provides daycare and preschool for about “90 children ages two to kindergarten.” Id., at 100a.

The Learning Center serves as “a ministry of the Church and incorporates daily religion and developmentally appropriate activities into . . . [its] program.” Id., at 101a. In this way, “[t]hrough the Learning Center, the Church teaches a Christian world view to children of members of the Church, as well as children of non-member residents” of the area. Ibid. These activities represent the Church’s “sincere religious belief . . . to use [the Learning Center] to teach the Gospel to children of its members, as well to bring the Gospel message to non-members.” Ibid.

The Learning Center’s facilities include a playground, the unlikely source of this dispute. The Church provides the playground and other “safe, clean, and attractive” facilities “in conjunction with an education program structured to allow a child to grow spiritually, physically, socially, and cognitively.” Ibid. This case began in 2012 when the Church applied for funding to upgrade the playground’s pea gravel and grass surface through Missouri’s Scrap Tire Program, which provides grants for the purchase and installation of recycled tire material to resurface playgrounds. The Church sought $20,000 for a $30,580 project to modernize the playground, part of its effort to gain state accreditation for the Learning Center as an early childhood education program. Missouri denied the Church funding based on Article I, §7, of its State Constitution, which prohibits the use of public funds “in aid of any church, sect, or denomination of religion.”


Properly understood then, this is a case about whether Missouri can decline to fund improvements to the facilities the Church uses to practice and spread its religious views. This Court has repeatedly warned that funding of exactly this kind—payments from the government to a house of worship—would cross the line drawn by the Establishment Clause. See, e.g., Walz v. Tax Comm’n of City of New York, 397 U. S. 664, 675 (1970) ; Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of Univ. of Va., 515 U. S. 819, 844 (1995) ; Mitchell v. Helms, 530 U. S. 793 –844 (2000) (O’Connor, J., concurring in judgment). So it is surprising that the Court mentions the Establishment Clause only to note the parties’ agreement that it “does not prevent Missouri from including Trinity Lutheran in the Scrap Tire Program.” Ante, at 6. Constitutional questions are decided by this Court, not the parties’ concessions. The Establishment Clause does not allow Missouri to grant the Church’s funding request because the Church uses the Learning Center, including its playground, in conjunction with its religious mission. The Court’s silence on this front signals either its misunderstanding of the facts of this case or a startling departure from our precedents.


The government may not directly fund religious exercise. See Everson v. Board of Ed. of Ewing, 330 U. S. 1, 16 (1947) ; Mitchell, 530 U. S., at 840 (O’Connor, J., concurring in judgment) (“[O]ur decisions provide no precedent for the use of public funds to finance religious activities” (internal quotation marks omitted)). Put in doctrinal terms, such funding violates the Establishment Clause because it impermissibly “advanc[es] . . . religion.”[1] Agostini v. Felton, 521 U. S. 203 –223 (1997).

Nowhere is this rule more clearly implicated than when funds flow directly from the public treasury to a house of worship.[2] A house of worship exists to foster and further religious exercise. There, a group of people, bound by common religious beliefs, comes together “to shape its own faith and mission.” Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, 565 U. S. 171, 188 (2012) . Within its walls, worshippers gather to practice and reaffirm their faith. And from its base, the faithful reach out to those not yet convinced of the group’s beliefs. When a government funds a house of worship, it underwrites this religious exercise.

Tilton v. Richardson, 403 U. S. 672 (1971) , held as much. The federal program at issue provided construction grants to colleges and universities but prohibited grantees from using the funds to construct facilities “ ‘used for sectarian instruction or as a place for religious worship’ ” or “ ‘used primarily in connection with any part of the program of a school or department of divinity.’ ” Id., at 675 (plurality opinion) (quoting 20 U. S. C. §751(a)(2) (1964 ed., Supp. V)). It allowed the Federal Government to recover the grant’s value if a grantee violated this prohibition within twenty years of the grant. See 403 U. S., at 675. The Court unanimously agreed that this time limit on recovery violated the Establishment Clause. “[T]he original federal grant w[ould] in part have the effect of advancing religion,” a plurality explained, if a grantee “converted [a facility] into a chapel or otherwise used [it] to promote religious interests” after twenty years. Id., at 683; see also id., at 692 (Douglas, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part); Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U. S. 602 –661 (1971) (Brennan, J., concurring); id., at 665, n. 1 (opinion of White, J.). Accordingly, the Court severed the twenty-year limit, ensuring that program funds would be put to secular use and thereby bringing the program in line with the Establishment Clause. See Tilton, 403 U. S., at 683 (plurality opinion).

This case is no different. The Church seeks state funds to improve the Learning Center’s facilities, which, by the Church’s own avowed description, are used to assist the spiritual growth of the children of its members and to spread the Church’s faith to the children of nonmembers. The Church’s playground surface—like a Sunday School room’s walls or the sanctuary’s pews—are integrated with and integral to its religious mission. The conclusion that the funding the Church seeks would impermissibly advance religion is inescapable.

True, this Court has found some direct government funding of religious institutions to be consistent with the Establishment Clause. But the funding in those cases came with assurances that public funds would not be used for religious activity, despite the religious nature of the institution. See, e.g., Rosenberger, 515 U. S., at 875–876 (Souter, J., dissenting) (chronicling cases). The Church has not and cannot provide such assurances here.[3] See Committee for Public Ed. & Religious Liberty v. Nyquist, 413 U. S. 756, 774 (1973) (“No attempt is made to restrict payments to those expenditures related to the upkeep of facilities used exclusively for secular purposes, nor do we think it possible within the context of these religion-oriented institutions to impose such restrictions”). The Church has a religious mission, one that it pursues through the Learning Center. The playground surface cannot be confined to secular use any more than lumber used to frame the Church’s walls, glass stained and used to form its windows, or nails used to build its altar.


The Court may simply disagree with this account of the facts and think that the Church does not put its playground to religious use. If so, its mistake is limited to this case. But if it agrees that the State’s funding would further religious activity and sees no Establishment Clause problem, then it must be implicitly applying a rule other than the one agreed to in our precedents.

When the Court last addressed direct funding of religious institutions, in Mitchell, it adhered to the rule that the Establishment Clause prohibits the direct funding of religious activities. At issue was a federal program that helped state and local agencies lend educational materials to public and private schools, including religious schools. See 530 U. S., at 801–803 (plurality opinion). The controlling concurrence assured itself that the program would not lead to the public funding of religious activity. It pointed out that the program allocated secular aid, that it did so “on the basis of neutral, secular criteria,” that the aid would not “supplant non-[program] funds,” that “no . . . funds ever reach the coffers of religious schools,” that “evidence of actual diversion is de minimis,” and that the program had “adequate safeguards” to police violations. Id., at 867 (O’Connor, J., concurring in judgment). Those factors, it concluded, were “sufficient to find that the program . . . [did] not have the impermissible effect of advancing religion.” Ibid.

A plurality would have instead upheld the program based only on the secular nature of the aid and the program’s “neutrality” as to the religious or secular nature of the recipient. See id., at 809–814. The controlling concurrence rejected that approach. It viewed the plurality’s test—“secular content aid . . . distributed on the basis of wholly neutral criteria”—as constitutionally insufficient. Id., at 839. This test, explained the concurrence, ignored whether the public funds subsidize religion, the touchstone of establishment jurisprudence. See id., at 844 (noting that the plurality’s logic would allow funding of “religious organizations (including churches)” where “the participating religious organizations (including churches) . . . use that aid to support religious indoctrination”).

Today’s opinion suggests the Court has made the leap the Mitchell plurality could not. For if it agrees that the funding here will finance religious activities, then only a rule that considers that fact irrelevant could support a conclusion of constitutionality. The problems of the “secular and neutral” approach have been aired before. See, e.g., id., at 900–902 (Souter, J., dissenting). It has no basis in the history to which the Court has repeatedly turned to inform its understanding of the Establishment Clause. It permits direct subsidies for religious indoctrination, with all the attendant concerns that led to the Establishment Clause. And it favors certain religious groups, those with a belief system that allows them to compete for public dollars and those well-organized and well-funded enough to do so successfully.[4]

Such a break with precedent would mark a radical mistake. The Establishment Clause protects both religion and government from the dangers that result when the two become entwined, “not by providing every religion with an equal opportunity (say, to secure state funding or to pray in the public schools), but by drawing fairly clear lines of separation between church and state—at least where the heartland of religious belief, such as primary religious [worship], is at issue.” Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 536 U. S. 639 –723 (2002) (Breyer, J., dissenting).


Even assuming the absence of an Establishment Clause violation and proceeding on the Court’s preferred front—the Free Exercise Clause—the Court errs. It claims that the government may not draw lines based on an entity’s religious “status.” But we have repeatedly said that it can. When confronted with government action that draws such a line, we have carefully considered whether the interests embodied in the Religion Clauses justify that line. The question here is thus whether those interests support the line drawn in Missouri’s Article I, §7, separating the State’s treasury from those of houses of worship. They unquestionably do.


The Establishment Clause prohibits laws “respecting an establishment of religion” and the Free Exercise Clause prohibits laws “prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” U. S. Const., Amdt. 1. “[I]f expanded to a logical extreme,” these prohibitions “would tend to clash with the other.” Walz, 397 U. S., at 668–669. Even in the absence of a violation of one of the Religion Clauses, the interaction of government and religion can raise concerns that sound in both Clauses. For that reason, the government may sometimes act to accommodate those concerns, even when not required to do so by the Free Exercise Clause, without violating the Establishment Clause. And the government may sometimes act to accommodate those concerns, even when not required to do so by the Establishment Clause, without violating the Free Exercise Clause. “[T]here is room for play in the joints productive of a benevolent neutrality which will permit religious exercise to exist without sponsorship and without interference.” Id., at 669. This space between the two Clauses gives government some room to recognize the unique status of religious entities and to single them out on that basis for exclusion from otherwise generally applicable laws.

Invoking this principle, this Court has held that the government may sometimes relieve religious entities from the requirements of government programs. A State need not, for example, require nonprofit houses of worship to pay property taxes. It may instead “spar[e] the exercise of religion from the burden of property taxation levied on private profit institutions” and spare the government “the direct confrontations and conflicts that follow in the train of those legal processes” associated with taxation. See id., at 673–674. Nor must a State require nonprofit religious entities to abstain from making employment decisions on the basis of religion. It may instead avoid imposing on these institutions a “[f]ear of potential liability [that] might affect the way” it “carried out what it understood to be its religious mission” and on the government the sensitive task of policing compliance. Corporation of Presiding Bishop of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints v. Amos, 483 U. S. 327, 336 (1987) ; see also id., at 343 (Brennan, J., concurring in judgment). But the government may not invoke the space between the Religion Clauses in a manner that “devolve[s] into an unlawful fostering of religion.” Cutter v. Wilkinson, 544 U. S. 709, 714 (2005) (internal quotation marks omitted).

Invoking this same principle, this Court has held that the government may sometimes close off certain government aid programs to religious entities. The State need not, for example, fund the training of a religious group’s leaders, those “who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith, and carry out their mission,” Hosanna-Tabor, 565 U. S., at 196. It may instead avoid the historic “antiestablishment interests” raised by the use of “taxpayer funds to support church leaders.” Locke v. Davey, 540 U. S. 712, 722 (2004) .

When reviewing a law that, like this one, singles out religious entities for exclusion from its reach, we thus have not myopically focused on the fact that a law singles out religious entities, but on the reasons that it does so.


Missouri has decided that the unique status of houses of worship requires a special rule when it comes to public funds. Its Constitution reflects that choice and provides:

“That no money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect, or denomination of religion, or in aid of any priest, preacher, minister or teacher thereof, as such; and that no preference shall be given to nor any discrimination made against any church, sect or creed of religion, or any form of religious faith or worship.” Art. I, §7.

Missouri’s decision, which has deep roots in our Nation’s history, reflects a reasonable and constitutional judgment.


This Court has consistently looked to history for guidance when applying the Constitution’s Religion Clauses. Those Clauses guard against a return to the past, and so that past properly informs their meaning. See, e.g., Everson, 330 U. S., at 14–15; Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U. S. 488, 492 (1961) . This case is no different.

This Nation’s early experience with, and eventual rejection of, established religion—shorthand for “sponsorship, financial support, and active involvement of the sovereign in religious activity,” Walz, 397 U. S., at 668—defies easy summary. No two States’ experiences were the same. In some a religious establishment never took hold. See T. Curry, The First Freedoms 19, 72–74, 76–77, 159–160 (1986) (Curry). In others establishment varied in terms of the sect (or sects) supported, the nature and extent of that support, and the uniformity of that support across the State. Where establishment did take hold, it lost its grip at different times and at different speeds. See T. Cobb, The Rise of Religious Liberty in America 510–511 (1970 ed.) (Cobb).

Despite this rich diversity of experience, the story relevant here is one of consistency. The use of public funds to support core religious institutions can safely be described as a hallmark of the States’ early experiences with religious establishment. Every state establishment saw laws passed to raise public funds and direct them toward houses of worship and ministers. And as the States all dises-tablished, one by one, they all undid those laws.[5]

Those who fought to end the public funding of religion based their opposition on a powerful set of arguments, all stemming from the basic premise that the practice harmed both civil government and religion. The civil government, they maintained, could claim no authority over religious belief. For them, support for religion compelled by the State marked an overstep of authority that would only lead to more. Equally troubling, it risked divisiveness by giving religions reason to compete for the State’s beneficence. Faith, they believed, was a personal matter, entirely between an individual and his god. Religion was best served when sects reached out on the basis of their tenets alone, unsullied by outside forces, allowing adherents to come to their faith voluntarily. Over and over, these arguments gained acceptance and led to the end of state laws exacting payment for the support of religion.

Take Virginia. After the Revolution, Virginia debated and rejected a general religious assessment. The proposed bill would have allowed taxpayers to direct payments to a Christian church of their choice to support a minister, exempted “Quakers and Menonists,” and sent undirected assessments to the public treasury for “seminaries of learning.” A Bill Establishing a Provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion, reprinted in Everson, 330 U. S., at 74 (supplemental appendix to dissent of Rutledge, J.).

In opposing this proposal, James Madison authored his famous Memorial and Remonstrance, in which he condemned the bill as hostile to religious freedom. Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments (1785), in 5 The Founders’ Constitution 82–84 (P. Kurland & R. Lerner eds. 1987). Believing it “proper to take alarm,” despite the bill’s limits, he protested “that the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment.” Id., at 82. Religion had “flourished, not only without the support of human laws, but in spite of every opposition from them.” Id., at 83. Compelled support for religion, he argued, would only weaken believers’ “confidence in its innate excellence,” strengthen others’ “suspicion that its friends are too conscious of its fallacies to trust in its own merits,” and harm the “purity and efficacy” of the supported religion. Ibid. He ended by deeming the bill incompatible with Virginia’s guarantee of “ ‘free exercise of . . . Religion according to the dictates of conscience.’ ” Id., at 84.

Madison contributed one influential voice to a larger chorus of petitions opposed to the bill. Others included “the religious bodies of Baptists, Presbyterians, and Quakers.” T. Buckley, Church and State in Revolutionary Virginia 1776–1787, p. 148 (1977). Their petitions raised similar points. See id., at 137–140, 148–149. Like Madison, many viewed the bill as a step toward a dangerous church-state relationship. See id., at 151. These voices against the bill won out, and Virginia soon prohibited religious assessments. See Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom (Oct. 31, 1785), in 5 The Founders’ Constitution 84–85.

This same debate played out in nearby Maryland, with the same result. In 1784, an assessment bill was proposed that would have allowed taxpayers to direct payments to ministers (of sufficiently large churches) or to the poor. Non-Christians were exempt. See Curry 155. Controversy over the bill “eclipse[d] in volume of writing and bitter-ness of invective every other political dispute since the debate over the question of independence.” J. Rainbolt, The Struggle To Define “Religious Liberty” in Maryland, 1776–85, 17 J. Church & State 443, 449 (1975). Critics of the bill raised the same themes as those in Virginia: that religion “needs not the power of rules to establish, but only to protect it”; that financial support of religion leads toward an establishment; and that laws for such support are “oppressive.” Curry 156, 157 (internal quotation marks omitted); see also Copy of Petition [to General Assembly], Maryland Gazette, Mar. 25, 1785, pp. 1, 2, col.1 (“[W]hy should such as do not desire or make conscience of it, be forced by law”). When the legislature next met, most representatives “had been elected by anti-assessment voters,” and the bill failed. Curry 157. In 1810, Maryland revoked the authority to levy religious assessments. See Md. Const., Amdt. XIII (1776), in 3 Federal and State Constitutions 1705 (F. Thorpe ed. 1909) (Thorpe).

In New England, which took longer to reach this conclusion, Vermont went first. Its religious assessment laws were accommodating. A person who was not a member of his town’s church was, upon securing a certificate to that effect, exempt. See L. Levy, The Establishment Clause 50 (1994) (Levy). Even so, the laws were viewed by many as violating Vermont’s constitutional prohibition against involuntary support of religion and guarantee of freedom of conscience. See, e.g., Address of Council of Censors to the People of Vermont 5–8 (1800) (“[R]eligion is a concern personally and exclusively operative between the individual and his God”); Address of Council of Censors [Vermont] 3–7 (Dec. 1806) (the laws’ “evils” included “violence done to the feelings of men” and “their property,” “animosities,” and “the dangerous lengths of which it is a foundation for us to go, in both civil and religious usurpation”). In 1807, Vermont “repealed all laws concerning taxation for religion.” Levy 51.

The rest of New England heard the same arguments and reached the same conclusion. John Leland’s sustained criticism of religious assessments over 20 years helped end the practice in Connecticut. See, e.g., Esbeck, Dissent and Disestablishment: The Church-State Settlement in the Early American Republic, 2004 B. Y. U. L. Rev. 1385, 1498, 1501–1511. The reasons he offered in urging opposition to the State’s laws will by now be familiar. Religion “is a matter between God and individuals,” which does not need, and would only be harmed by, government support. J. Leland, The Rights of Conscience Inalienable (1791), in The Sacred Rights of Conscience 337–339 (D. Dreisbach & M. Hall eds. 2009). “[T]ruth gains honor; and men more firmly believe it,” when religion is subjected to the “cool investigation and fair argument” that freedom of conscience produces. Id., at 340. Religious assessments violated that freedom, he argued. See id., at 342 (“If these people bind nobody but themselves, who is injured by their religious opinions? But if they bind an individual besides themselves, the bond is fraudulent and ought to be declared illegal”). Connecticut ended religious assessments first by statute in 1817, then by its State Constitution of 1818. See Cobb 513.

In New Hampshire, a steady campaign against religious assessments led to a bill that was subjected to “the scru-tiny of the people.” C. Kinney, Church & State: The Strug-gle for Separation in New Hampshire, 1630–1900, p. 101 (1955) (Kinney). It was nicknamed “Dr. Whipple’s Act” after its strongest advocate in the State House. Orford Union Congregational Soc. v. West Congregational Soc. of Orford, 55 N. H. 463, 468–469, n. (1875). He defended the bill as a means “to take religion out of politics, to eliminate state support, to insure opportunity to worship with true freedom of conscience, [and] to put all sects and denominations of Christians upon a level.” Kinney 103. The bill became law and provided “that no person shall be compelled to join or support, or be classed with, or associated to any congregation, church or religious society without his express consent first had and obtained.” Act [of July 1, 1819] Regulating Towns and Choice of Town Officers §3, in 1 Laws of the State of New Hampshire Enacted Since June 1, 1815, p. 45 (1824). Massachusetts held on the longest of all the States, finally ending religious assessments in 1833. See Cobb 515.[6]

The course of this history shows that those who lived under the laws and practices that formed religious establishments made a considered decision that civil government should not fund ministers and their houses of worship. To us, their debates may seem abstract and this history remote. That is only because we live in a society that has long benefited from decisions made in response to these now centuries-old arguments, a society that those not so fortunate fought hard to build.


In Locke, this Court expressed an understanding of, and respect for, this history. Locke involved a provision of the State of Washington’s Constitution that, like Missouri’s nearly identical Article I, §7, barred the use of public funds for houses of worship or ministers. Consistent with this denial of funds to ministers, the State’s college scholarship program did not allow funds to be used for devotional theology degrees. When asked whether this violated the would-be minister’s free exercise rights, the Court invoked the play in the joints principle and answered no. The Establishment Clause did not require the prohibition because “the link between government funds and religious training [was] broken by the independent and private choice of [scholarship] recipients.” 540 U. S., at 719; see also supra, n. 2. Nonetheless, the denial did not violate the Free Exercise Clause because a “historic and substantial state interest” supported the constitutional provision. 540 U. S., at 725. The Court could “think of few areas in which a State’s antiestablishment interests come more into play” than the “procuring [of] taxpayer funds to support church leaders.” Id., at 722.

The same is true of this case, about directing taxpayer funds to houses of worship, see supra, at 2. Like the use of public dollars for ministers at issue in Locke, turning over public funds to houses of worship implicates serious antiestablishment and free exercise interests. The history just discussed fully supports this conclusion. As states disestablished, they repealed laws allowing taxation to support religion because the practice threatened other forms of government support for, involved some government control over, and weakened supporters’ control of religion. Common sense also supports this conclusion. Recall that a state may not fund religious activities without violating the Establishment Clause. See Part II–A, supra. A state can reasonably use status as a “house of worship” as a stand-in for “religious activities.” Inside a house of worship, dividing the religious from the secular would require intrusive line-drawing by government, and monitoring those lines would entangle government with the house of worship’s activities. And so while not every activity a house of worship undertakes will be inseparably linked to religious activity, “the likelihood that many are makes a categorical rule a suitable means to avoid chilling the exercise of religion.” Amos, 483 U. S., at 345 (Brennan, J., concurring in judgment). Finally, and of course, such funding implicates the free exercise rights of taxpayers by denying them the chance to decide for themselves whether and how to fund religion. If there is any “ ‘room for play in the joints’ between” the Religion Clauses, it is here. Locke, 540 U. S., at 718 (quoting Walz, 397 U. S., at 669).

As was true in Locke, a prophylactic rule against the use of public funds for houses of worship is a permissible accommodation of these weighty interests. The rule has a historical pedigree identical to that of the provision in Locke. Almost all of the States that ratified the Religion Clauses operated under this rule. See 540 U. S., at 723. Seven had placed this rule in their State Constitutions.[7] Three enforced it by statute or in practice.[8] Only one had not yet embraced the rule.[9] Today, thirty-eight States have a counterpart to Missouri’s Article I, §7.[10] The provisions, as a general matter, date back to or before these States’ original Constitutions.[11] That so many States have for so long drawn a line that prohibits public funding for houses of worship, based on principles rooted in this Nation’s understanding of how best to foster religious liberty, supports the conclusion that public funding of houses of worship “is of a different ilk.” Locke, 540 U. S., at 723.

And as in Locke, Missouri’s Article I, §7, is closely tied to the state interests it protects. See Locke, 540 U. S., at 724 (describing the program at issue as “go[ing] a long way toward including religion in its benefits”). A straightforward reading of Article I, §7, prohibits funding only for “any church, sect, or denomination of religion, or in aid of any priest, preacher, minister or teacher thereof, as such.” The Missouri courts have not read the State’s Constitution to reach more broadly, to prohibit funding for other religiously affiliated institutions, or more broadly still, to prohibit the funding of religious believers. See, e.g., Saint Louis Univ. v. Masonic Temple Assn. of St. Louis, 220 S. W. 3d 721, 726 (Mo. 2007) (“The university is not a religious institution simply because it is affiliated with the Jesuits or the Roman Catholic Church”). The Scrap Tire Program at issue here proves the point. Missouri will fund a religious organization not “owned or controlled by a church,” if its “mission and activities are secular (separate from religion, not spiritual in) nature” and the funds “will be used for secular (separate from religion; not spiritual) purposes rather than for sectarian (denominational, devoted to a sect) purposes.” App. to Brief for Petitioner 3a; see also Tr. of Oral Arg. 33–35. Article I, §7, thus stops Missouri only from funding specific entities, ones that set and enforce religious doctrine for their adherents. These are the entities that most acutely raise the establishment and free exercise concerns that arise when public funds flow to religion.

Missouri has recognized the simple truth that, even absent an Establishment Clause violation, the transfer of public funds to houses of worship raises concerns that sit exactly between the Religion Clauses. To avoid those concerns, and only those concerns, it has prohibited such funding. In doing so, it made the same choice made by the earliest States centuries ago and many other States in the years since. The Constitution permits this choice.


In the Court’s view, none of this matters. It focuses on one aspect of Missouri’s Article I, §7, to the exclusion of all else: that it denies funding to a house of worship, here the Church, “simply because of what it [i]s—a church.” Ante, at 12. The Court describes this as a constitutionally impermissible line based on religious “status” that requires strict scrutiny. Its rule is out of step with our precedents in this area, and wrong on its own terms.

The Constitution creates specific rules that control how the government may interact with religious entities. And so of course a government may act based on a religious entity’s “status” as such. It is that very status that implicates the interests protected by the Religion Clauses. Sometimes a religious entity’s unique status requires the government to act. See Hosanna-Tabor, 565 U. S., at 188–190. Other times, it merely permits the government to act. See Part III–A, supra. In all cases, the dispositive issue is not whether religious “status” matters—it does, or the Religion Clauses would not be at issue—but whether the government must, or may, act on that basis.

Start where the Court stays silent. Its opinion does not acknowledge that our precedents have expressly approved of a government’s choice to draw lines based on an entity’s religious status. See Amos, 483 U. S., at 339; Walz, 397 U. S., at 680; Locke, 540 U. S., at 721. Those cases did not deploy strict scrutiny to create a presumption of unconstitutionality, as the Court does today. Instead, they asked whether the government had offered a strong enough reason to justify drawing a line based on that status. See Amos, 483 U. S., at 339 (“[W]e see no justification for applying strict scrutiny”); Walz, 397 U. S., at 679 (rejecting criticisms of a case-by-case approach as giving “too little weight to the fact that it is an essential part of adjudication to draw distinctions, including fine ones, in the process of interpreting the Constitution”); Locke, 540 U. S., at 725 (balancing the State’s interests against the aspiring minister’s).

The Court takes two steps to avoid these precedents. First, it recasts Locke as a case about a restriction that prohibited the would-be minister from “us[ing] the funds to prepare for the ministry.” Ante, at 12. A faithful reading of Locke gives it a broader reach. Locke stands for the reasonable proposition that the government may, but need not, choose not to fund certain religious entities (there, ministers) where doing so raises “historic and substantial” establishment and free exercise concerns. 540 U. S., at 725. Second, it suggests that this case is different because it involves “discrimination” in the form of the denial of access to a possible benefit. Ante, at 11. But in this area of law, a decision to treat entities differently based on distinctions that the Religion Clauses make relevant does not amount to discrimination.[12] To understand why, keep in mind that “the Court has unambiguously concluded that the individual freedom of conscience protected by the First Amendment embraces the right to select any religious faith or none at all.” Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U. S. 38 –53 (1985). If the denial of a benefit others may receive is discrimination that violates the Free Exercise Clause, then the accommodations of religious entities we have approved would violate the free exercise rights of nonreligious entities. We have, with good reason, rejected that idea, see, e.g., Amos, 483 U. S., at 338–339, and instead focused on whether the government has provided a good enough reason, based in the values the Religion Clauses protect, for its decision.[13]

The Court offers no real reason for rejecting the balancing approach in our precedents in favor of strict scrutiny, beyond its references to discrimination. The Court’s desire to avoid what it views as discrimination is understand-able. But in this context, the description is particularly inappropriate. A State’s decision not to fund houses of worship does not disfavor religion; rather, it represents a valid choice to remain secular in the face of serious establishment and free exercise concerns. That does not make the State “atheistic or antireligious.” County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union, Greater Pittsburgh Chapter, 492 U. S. 573, 610 (1989) . It means only that the State has “establishe[d] neither atheism nor religion as its official creed.” Ibid. The Court’s conclusion “that the only alternative to governmental support of religion is governmental hostility to it represents a giant step backward in our Religion Clause jurisprudence.” Id., at 652, n. 11 (Stevens, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part).

At bottom, the Court creates the following rule today: The government may draw lines on the basis of religious status to grant a benefit to religious persons or entities but it may not draw lines on that basis when doing so would further the interests the Religion Clauses protect in other ways. Nothing supports this lopsided outcome. Not the Religion Clauses, as they protect establishment and free exercise interests in the same constitutional breath, neither privileged over the other. Not precedent, since we have repeatedly explained that the Clauses protect not religion but “the individual’s freedom of conscience,” Jaffree, 472 U. S., at 50—that which allows him to choose religion, reject it, or remain undecided. And not reason, because as this case shows, the same interests served by lifting government-imposed burdens on certain religious entities may sometimes be equally served by denying government-provided benefits to certain religious entities. Cf. Walz, 397 U. S., at 674 (entanglement); Amos, 483 U. S., at 336 (influence on religious activities).

Justice Breyer’s concurrence offers a narrower rule that would limit the effects of today’s decision, but that rule does not resolve this case. Justice Breyer, like the Court, thinks 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,” ante, at 6 (majority opinion) (internal quotation marks omitted). See ante, at 1–2 (Breyer, J., concurring in judgment). Few would disagree with a literal interpretation of this statement. To fence out religious persons or entities from a truly gener-ally available public benefit—one provided to all, no questions asked, such as police or fire protections—would violate the Free Exercise Clause. Accord, Rosenberger, 515 U. S., at 879, n. 5 (Souter, J., dissenting). This explains why Missouri does not apply its constitutional provision in that manner. See Tr. of Oral Arg. 35–36. Nor has it done so here. The Scrap Tire Program offers not a generally available benefit but a selective benefit for a few recipients each year. In this context, the comparison to truly generally available benefits is inapt. Cf. Everson, 330 U. S., at 61, n. 56 (Rutledge, J., dissenting) (The Religion Clauses “forbi[d] support, not protection from interference or destruction”).

On top of all of this, the Court’s application of its new rule here is mistaken. In concluding that Missouri’s Article I, §7, cannot withstand strict scrutiny, the Court describes Missouri’s interest as a mere “policy preference for skating as far as possible from religious establishment concerns.” Ante, at 14. The constitutional provisions of thirty-nine States—all but invalidated today—the weighty interests they protect, and the history they draw on deserve more than this judicial brush aside.[14]

Today’s decision discounts centuries of history and jeopardizes the government’s ability to remain secular. Just three years ago, this Court claimed to understand that, in this area of law, to “sweep away what has so long been settled would create new controversy and begin anew the very divisions along religious lines that the Establishment Clause seeks to prevent.” Town of Greece v. Galloway, 572 U. S. ___, ___ (2014) (slip op., at 8). It makes clear today that this principle applies only when preference suits.


The Religion Clauses of the First Amendment contain a promise from our government and a backstop that disables our government from breaking it. The Free Exercise Clause extends the promise. We each retain our inalien-able right to “the free exercise” of religion, to choose for ourselves whether to believe and how to worship. And the Establishment Clause erects the backstop. Government cannot, through the enactment of a “law respecting an establishment of religion,” start us down the path to the past, when this right was routinely abridged.

The Court today dismantles a core protection for religious freedom provided in these Clauses. It holds not just that a government may support houses of worship with taxpayer funds, but that—at least in this case and perhaps in others, see ante at 14, n. 3—it must do so when-ever it decides to create a funding program. History shows that the Religion Clauses separate the public treasury from religious coffers as one measure to secure the kind of freedom of conscience that benefits both religion and government. If this separation means anything, it means that the government cannot, or at the very least need not, tax its citizens and turn that money over to houses of worship. The Court today blinds itself to the outcome this history requires and leads us instead to a place where separation of church and state is a constitutional slogan, not a constitutional commitment. I dissent.


1  Government aid that has the “purpose” or “effect of advancing or inhibiting religion” violates the Establishment Clause. Agostini v. Felton, 521 U. S. 203 –223 (1997) (internal quotation marks omitted). Whether government aid has such an effect turns on whether it “result[s] in governmental indoctrination,” “define[s] its recipients by reference to religion,” or “create[s] an excessive entanglement” between the government and religion. Id., at 234; see also id., at 235 (same considerations speak to whether the aid can “reasonably be viewed as an endorsement of religion”).
2  Because Missouri decides which Scrap Tire Program applicants receive state funding, this case does not implicate a line of decisions about indirect aid programs in which aid reaches religious institutions “only as a result of the genuine and independent choices of private individuals.” Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 536 U. S. 639, 649 (2002) .
3  The Scrap Tire Program requires an applicant to certify, among other things, that its mission and activities are secular and that it will put program funds to only a secular use. App. to Pet. for Cert. 127a–130a. From the record, it is unclear whether the Church provided any part of this certification. Id., at 127a–130a. In any case, the Church has not offered any such assurances to this Court.
4  This case highlights the weaknesses of the rule. The Scrap Tire Program ranks more highly those applicants who agree to generate media exposure for Missouri and its program and who receive the endorsement of local solid waste management entities. That is, it prefers applicants who agree to advertise that the government has funded it and who seek out the approval of government agencies. To ignore this result is to ignore the type of state entanglement with, and endorsement of, religion the Establishment Clause guards against.
5  This Court did not hold that the Religion Clauses applied, through the Fourteenth Amendment, to the States until the 1940’s. See Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U. S. 296 (1940) (Free Exercise Clause); Everson v. Board of Ed. of Ewing, 330 U. S. 1 (1947) (Establishment Clause). When the States dismantled their religious establishments, as all had by the 1830’s, they did so on their own accord, in response to the lessons taught by their experiences with religious establishments.
6  To this, some might point out that the Scrap Tire Program at issue here does not impose an assessment specifically for religious entities but rather directs funds raised through a general taxation scheme to the Church. That distinction makes no difference. The debates over religious assessment laws focused not on the means of those laws but on their ends: the turning over of public funds to religious entities. See, e.g., Locke v. Davey, 540 U. S. 712, 723 (2004) .
7  See N. J. Const., Art. XVIII (1776), in 5 Thorpe 2597 (“[N]or shall any person, within this Colony, ever be obliged to pay tithes, taxes, or any other rates, for the purpose of building or repairing any other church or churches, place or places of worship, or for the maintenance of any minister or ministry, contrary to what he believes to be right, or has deliberately or voluntarily engaged himself to perform”); N. C. Const., Art. XXXIV (1776), in id., at 2793 (“[N]either shall any person, on any pretence whatsoever, . . . be obliged to pay, for the purchase of any glebe, or the building of any house of worship, or for the maintenance of any minister or ministry, contrary to what he believes right, or has voluntarily and personally engaged to perform”); Pa. Const., Art. IX, §3 (1790), in id., at 3100 (“[N]o man can of right be compelled to attend, erect, or support any place of worship, or to maintain any ministry, against his consent”); S. C. Const., Art. XXXVIII (1778), in 6 id., at 3257 (“No person shall, by law, be obliged to pay towards the maintenance and support of a religious worship that he does not freely join in, or has not voluntarily engaged to support”); Vt. Const., ch. 1, Art. III (1786), in id., at 3752 (“[N]o man ought, or of right can be compelled to attend any religious worship, or erect, or support any place of worship, or maintain any minister, contrary to the dictates of his conscience”).
8  See Virginia, Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, in 5 The Founders’ Constitution 85 (P. Kurland & R. Lerner eds. 1987); Curry 211–212 (Rhode Island never publicly funded houses of worship); Esbeck, Dissent and Disestablishment: The Church-State Settlement in the Early American Republic, 2004 B. Y. U. L. Rev. 1385, 1489–1490 (Maryland never invoked its constitutional authorization of religious assessments).
9  See N. H. Const., pt. 1, Arts. I, VI (1784), in 4 Thorpe 2453, 2454.
10  See Ala. Const., Art. I, §3; Ariz. Const., Art. II, §12, Art. IX, §10; Ark. Const., Art. II, §24; Cal. Const., Art. XVI, §5; Colo. Const., Art. II, §4, Art. IX, §7; Conn. Const., Art. Seventh; Del. Const., Art. I, §1; Fla. Const., Art. I, §3; Ga. Const., Art. I, §2, para. VII; Idaho Const., Art. IX, §5; Ill. Const., Art. I, §3, Art. X, §3; Ind. Const., Art. 1, §§4, 6; Iowa Const., Art. 1, §3; Ky. Const. §5; Md. Const., Decl. of Rights Art. 36; Mass. Const. Amdt., Art. XVIII, §2; Mich. Const., Art. I, §4; Minn. Const., Art. I, §16; Mo. Const., Art. I, §§6, 7, Art. IX, §8; Mont. Const., Art. X, §6; Neb. Const., Art. I, §4; N. H. Const., pt. 2, Art. 83; N. J. Const., Art. I, §3; N. M. Const., Art. II, §11; Ohio Const., Art. I, §7; Okla. Const., Art. II, §5; Ore. Const., Art. I, §5; Pa. Const., Art. I, §3, Art. III, §29; R. I. Const., Art. I, §3; S. D. Const., Art. VI, §3; Tenn. Const., Art. I, §3; Tex. Const., Art. I, §§6, 7; Utah Const., Art. I, §4; Vt. Const., ch. I, Art. 3; Va. Const., Art. I, §16, Art. IV, §16; Wash. Const., Art. I, §11; W. Va. Const., Art. III, §15; Wis. Const., Art. I, §18; Wyo. Const., Art. I, §19, Art. III, §36.
11  See Ala. Const., Art. I, §3 (1819), in 1 Thorpe 97; Ariz. Const., Art. II, §12, Art. IX, §10 (1912); Ark. Const., Art. II, §3 (1836), in 1 Thorpe 269; Cal. Const., Art. IX, §8 (1879), in id., at 432; Colo. Const., Art. II, §4, Art. V, §34 (1876), in id., at 474, 485; Conn. Const., Art. First, §4, Art. Seventh, §1 (1818), in id., at 537, 544–545; Del. Const., Art. I, §1 (1792); Fla. Const., Decl. of Rights §6 (1885), in 2 Thorpe 733; Ga. Const., Art. I, §1, para. XIV (1877), in id., at 843; Idaho Const., Art. I, §4, Art. IX, §5 (1889), in id., at 919, 936–937; Ill. Const., Art. VIII, §3 (1818) and (1870), in id., at 981, 1035; Ind. Const., Art. 1, §3 (1816), Art. 1, §6 (1851), in id., at 1056, 1074; Iowa Const., Art. 1, §3 (1846), in id., at 1123; Ky. Const., Art. XIII, §5 (1850), in 3 id., at 1312; Md. Const., Decl. of Rights Art. 36 (1867), in id., at 1782; Mass. Const. Amdt., Art. XVIII (1855), in id., at 1918, 1922; Mass. Const. Amdt., Art. XVIII (1974); Mich. Const., Art. 1, §4 (1835), Art. IV, §40 (1850), in 4 Thorpe 1031, 1050; Minn. Const., Art. I, §16 (1857), in id., at 1092; Enabling Act for Mo., §4 (1820), Mo. Const., Art. I, §10 (1865), Art. II, §7 (1875), in id., at 2146–2147, 2192, 2230; Mont. Const., Art. XI, §8 (1889), in id., at 2323; Neb. Const., Art. I, §16 (1866), in id., at 2350; N. H. Const., pt. 2, Art. 83 (1877); N. J. Const., Art. XVIII (1776), in 5 Thorpe 2597; N. M. Const., Art. II, §11 (1911); Ohio Const., Art. VIII, §3 (1802), in 5 Thorpe 2910; Okla. Const., Art. II, §5 (1907), in H. Snyder, The Constitution of Oklahoma 21 (1908); Ore. Const., Art. I, §5 (1857), in 5 Thorpe 2098; Pa. Const., Art. IX, §3 (1790), Art. III, §18 (1873), in id., at 3100, 3120; R. I. Const., Art. I, §3 (1842), in 6 id., at 3222–3223; S. D. Const., Art. VI, §3 (1889), in id., at 3370; Tenn. Const., Art. XI, §3 (1796), in id., at 3422; Tex. Const., Art. I, §4 (1845), Art. I, §7 (1876), in id., at 3547–3548, 3622; Utah Const., Art. I, §4 (1895), in id., at 3702; Vt. Const., ch. I, Art. III (1777), in id., at 3740; Va. Const., Art. III, §11 (1830), Art. IV, §67 (1902), in 7 id., at 3824, 3917; Wash. Const., Art. I, §11 (1889), in id., at 3874; W. Va. Const., Art. II, §9 (1861–1863), in id., at 4015; Wis. Const., Art. I, §18 (1848), in id., at 4078–4079; Wyo. Const., Art. I, §19, Art. III, §36 (1889), in id., at 4119, 4124.
12  This explains, perhaps, the Court’s reference to an Equal Protection Clause precedent, rather than a Free Exercise Clause precedent, for this point. See ante, at 11 (citing Northeastern Fla. Chapter, Associated Gen. Contractors of America v. Jacksonville, 508 U. S. 656 (1993) ).
13  No surprise then that, despite the Court’s protests to the contrary, no case has applied its rigid rule. McDaniel v. Paty, 435 U. S. 618 (1978) , on which the Court relies most heavily, mentioned “status” only to distinguish laws that deprived a person “of a civil right solely because of their religious beliefs.” Id., at 626–627 (plurality opinion). In Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U. S. 488 (1961) , the Court invalidated a law that barred persons who refused to state their belief in God from public office without “evaluat[ing] the interests assertedly justifying it.” McDaniel, 435 U. S., at 626 (plurality opinion). That approach did not control in McDaniel, which involved a state constitutional provision that barred ministers from serving as legislators, because “ministerial status” was defined “in terms of conduct and activity,” not “belief.” Id., at 627. The Court thus asked whether the “anti-establishment interests” the State offered were strong enough to justify the denial of a constitutional right—to serve in public office—and concluded that they were not. Id., at 627–629. Other references to “status” in our cases simply recount McDaniel. See, e.g., Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. Hialeah, 508 U. S. 520, 533 (1993) ; Employment Div., Dept. of Human Resources of Ore. v. Smith, 494 U. S. 872, 877 (1990) .
14  In the end, the soundness of today’s decision may matter less than what it might enable tomorrow. The principle it establishes can be manipulated to call for a similar fate for lines drawn on the basis of religious use. See ante, at 1–3 (Gorsuch, J., concurring in part); see also ante, at 1–2 (Thomas, J., concurring in part) (going further and suggesting that lines drawn on the basis of religious status amount to per se unconstitutional discrimination on the basis of religious belief ). It is enough for today to explain why the Court’s decision is wrong. The error of the concurrences’ hoped-for decisions can be left for tomorrow. See, for now, School Dist. of Abington Township v. Schempp, 374 U. S. 203, 226 (1963) (“While the Free Exercise Clause clearly prohibits the use of state action to deny the rights of free exercise to anyone, it has never meant that a majority could use the machinery of the State to practice its beliefs”).
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