There are numerous government grant programs that provide money for all sorts of things. Is it permissible for a church to participate and receive government grant money? The answer to that question can sometimes be complicated, but the Supreme Court has determined that there are certain cases where the government will violate the Constitution if it prohibits a church from participating in a grant program.
In a 2017 Supreme Court case, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, the question was raised whether a state (Missouri) was permitted to deny a grant designed to aid schools in improving their playgrounds simply because that school was owned by a church and was run on church grounds. The Supreme Court, in s trong opinion, held that the state’s denial of the grant violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.
Missouri made its decision to deny Trinity Lutheran the grant money under its Scrap Tire Program—which was designed to induce school playgrounds to improve safety by replacing existing groundcover with recycled scrap tires—strictly on the basis that Trinity Lutheran was a church. This determination was based upon the state’s Constitution, which contains the verbiage, “no money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect or denomination of religion […].”
Both parties to the case—and the Court—agreed that the Establishment Clause was not at issue (i.e., that it would not violate the Constitution to give a scrap tire grant to the church to resurface its playground). The Free Exercise Clause, though, has been interpreted for years to mean that not only may the government not interfere in the exercise of religious organizations, but that it also may not single out religious organizations for disfavored treatment. The policy in Missouri’s Constitution, the Court ruled, singled out and disqualified the church because of its religious character—and for a grant that had no danger of “establishing” a religion. Therefore, the state was not permitted to deny the church’s school a grant via the Scrap Tire Program, as this was a violation of the Free Exercise Clause.
When a church, ministry, or other nonprofit organization in Arizona needs legal aid or advice, Provident Law’s church and nonprofit attorneys are here to help. We recognize how essential these organizations are to society, and we provide broad transactional and general counsel services to keep them running smoothly. Contact us to learn more.