SCOTUS Trinity Lutheran Decision “Detonates a Massive Breach” in the Wall of Separation

For Immediate Release: June 26, 2017
Contact: Paul Fidalgo, Communications Director - (207) 358-9785

The Center for Inquiry expressed its extreme disappointment with the Supreme Court’s decision in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, concerned that the ruling contradicts the long held understanding of the Establishment Clause and will allow churches and religious institutions to circumvent the constitutional restrictions on the public funding of religion.

“The Supreme Court has detonated a massive breach in the wall of separation between church and state,” said Nicholas Little, Legal Director of the Center for Inquiry. “In fact the justices have laid the groundwork for additional confusion and conflict, as they have they provided no real method for deciding whether future applications by churches for taxpayer subsidy will be acceptable or not.”

In a split decision, the Supreme Court ruled that excluding the playground of Trinity Lutheran Church from a public grant program offered by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources to fund the purchase of recycled tires to resurface playgrounds violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. The Court held that Trinity Lutheran was excluded from the program because it was a church, which constituted religious discrimination.

“This case was never really about a playground or recycled tires,” said Little. “This was about whether religious institutions can be eligible for public funds for what they claim are secular purposes. The Court has long held that the direct cash funding of religious organizations violates the Constitution. In paying for the renovation of its playground, the state of Missouri relieves Trinity Lutheran Church of a financial burden, which frees the church to use those funds for explicitly sectarian purposes. That is unacceptable.”

In July 2016, the Center for Inquiry signed onto an amicus brief with the ACLU and other organizations arguing that granting taxpayer dollars to the church, even for a playground, would amount to the public funding of a particular religion — funds that would be provided by members of other, non-Lutheran faiths and no faith — in violation of the Constitution.

“It is all the more confounding that the plaintiffs were not even willing to say that the playground had no religious purpose, as the preschool for which it is used is considered part of the church’s religious mission,” said Little. “We are deeply concerned about what happens next, as other sectarian organizations find new and novel ways to siphon taxpayer dollars into their churches, temples, and mosques.”


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The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is a nonprofit educational, advocacy, and research organization headquartered in Amherst, New York, with executive offices in Washington, D.C. It is also home to the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and the Council for Secular Humanism. The Center for Inquiry strives to foster a secular society based on reason, science, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. Visit CFI on the web at