Americans United on Monday asked the U.S. Supreme Court to dismiss Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer – a church-state separation case scheduled to be heard by the high court today.
AU and the American Civil Liberties Union jointly asked the court to dismiss the case in light of the announcement late last week from Missouri’s governor that the state will now allow houses of worship to apply for the grant that Trinity Lutheran Church previously was denied.
“Because (the church) has received all the relief that it has requested – eligibility to compete for future grants from the Department of Natural Resources – there is no live controversy, and the case is moot,” AU and the ACLU wrote to the court.
“Trinity Lutheran wanted to make taxpayers fund churches. But religious freedom protects our right to believe and worship – or not – without the government’s interference,” said AU’s Legal Director Richard B. Katskee. “Last week, Missouri’s governor abandoned this principle by deciding to subsidize houses of worship. Trinity Lutheran got what it wanted. With nothing more at stake, the case should end now.”
Now that Missouri has agreed that tax dollars should be available to houses of worship, the state and the church are on the same side of this legal contest. And, as Katskee previously explained: “The Constitution forbids federal courts to issue decisions when there is no longer an actual, live dispute between the parties.”
Trinity Lutheran Church had sued Missouri officials after the state wouldn’t allow the church to participate in a taxpayer-funded grant program to improve its playground.
Like the majority of U.S. states, Missouri has a provision in its constitution that prohibits governmental funds from supporting houses of worship. These “no-aid” clauses safeguard religious freedom by ensuring that citizens have freedom of conscience to choose which religions (if any) they will voluntarily support. The provisions also protect faith communities from governmental discrimination and interference.
But in blatant disregard for the constitution he’s sworn to uphold, newly elected Gov. Eric Greitens (R) on Thursday announced the state would now permit religious organizations to qualify for taxpayer-funded grants.
Both Trinity Lutheran and the state submitted letters today asking the Supreme Court to proceed with the case tomorrow. Both sides argue the case should be argued because a subsequent administration could reverse course again.
But AU and the ACLU reject this argument: “Both may wish to proceed, yet both consider and declare the prior policy invalid. Given this dramatic change and (the state’s) public explanation therefor, the State is not in a position to present in this Court a vigorous defense of its past policy – a policy that the State has officially disavowed and publicly condemns.”
Not only has the governor voiced his lack of support for his state’s constitution, but the newly elected attorney general also has objected to the state’s no-aid clause and recused himself from the case. A former Democratic solicitor general was tapped to argue the state’s side.
This case has significant religious freedom implications. A broad ruling by the Supreme Court could require states to ignore their own constitutions and direct taxpayer money to churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship. That’s why AU joined our allies in filing a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Missouri’s constitution. And that’s why we’ve been raising awareness about this vital case. You can read more about it here.