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SCOTUS to Hear Church’s Discrimination Claim

(CN) - The Supreme Court agreed Friday to consider Missouri's dismissal of a church's grant application based on religious grounds.

Trinity Church of Columbia operates a licensed preschool on its premises and in 2012 applied for a grant with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources to help pay for recycled tires to resurface the preschool's playground.

Even though Trinity's application ranked fifth out of 42 applications received by the DNR, it was denied citing Article 1, Section 7 of the Missouri Constitution that states "no money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, section or denomination of religion."

The DNR eventually granted 14 of the 42 applications it received.

Trinity sued claiming Constitutional violations of equal protection, religion, free speech and exercise. Trinity's lawsuit also claimed that the DNR's denial actually violated Article 1, Section 7 and sought injunctive relief against the department's policies denying grants to applicants who are churches or religious organizations.

After a state court dismissed Trinity's complaint for failure to state a claim, the church appealed. In a split decision, a three-judge panel of the Eighth Circuit affirmed the state court's ruling.

"Although Trinity Church couched these claims as an attack on DNR's 'customs, policies and practices,' all its claims are plainly facial attacks on Article I, § 7, of the Missouri Constitution, ... which was cited by DNR as the sole basis for its denial," Judge James B. Loken wrote.

"Viewed in this light, it is apparent that Trinity Church seeks an unprecedented ruling that a state constitution violates the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause if it bars the grant of public funds to a church. To prevail, Trinity Church must clear a formidable if not insurmountable hurdle, what appears to be controlling adverse precedent."

Judge Michael J. Melloy concurred, but Judge Raymond W. Gruender dissented in part.

Gruender cited precedent set in the 2004 case of Locke vs. Davey, which governs claims brought under the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment.

"Trinity Lutheran has pled that the Department categorically prohibited the Learning Center from receiving a playground-surfacing grant because it is run by a church," Gruender wrote. "This blanket prohibition is different in kind from the disfavor of religion that was present in Locke. Whereas the Locke program excluded religious study while also including it, ... the Department has entirely excluded the Learning Center from receiving a playground-surfacing grant. Much like the Tenth Circuit, I read Locke to impose some bounds on such a 'wholesale exclusion of religious institutions and their students from otherwise neutral and generally available government support.'"

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