U.S. top court to hear Missouri church's religious rights case

Reuters News
Posted: Jan 15, 2016 5:39 PM

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Supreme Court agreed on Friday to decide a religious rights case from Missouri in which a church contends the state violated the U.S. Constitution by denying it funds for a playground project due to a state ban on aid to religious organizations.

Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Missouri, which operates a daycare center, had wanted funds from a state program that awards grants for resurfacing playgrounds using recycled tires so it could replace its playground's rock surface.

The church's legal argument is that Missouri's action effectively discriminates against religious groups by banning them from a program that is wholly secular.

The church's lawyers said in court papers that Missouri was wrong to deny the church's 2012 application purely because the state constitution states that "no money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect or denomination of religion."

The denial violated the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of religion, the lawyers said.

"No state can define religious neutrality as treating religious organizations worse than everyone else," said David Cortman, a lawyer with Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom, which represents the church.

The church's 2013 lawsuit was thrown out by a lower court judge. In May 2015, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that decision.

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case in the coming months, with a ruling due by the end of June.

The case is Trinity Lutheran Church v. Pauley, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 15-577.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)