Last week, the Wall Street Journal published a bizarre op-ed by William Watkins Jr. on the Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer case, entitled “A Case the Justices Shouldn’t Have Heard.” Trinity Lutheran was argued before the Supreme Court just a few weeks ago, on April 19. It now awaits decision.
Watkins argues that the case presents merely a state law issue, never should have been in federal court in the first place, never should have been heard by the Supreme Court, and is now moot. Essentially everything Watkins says about the case is flatly and egregiously wrong. Indulge me as I first unpack the case and then Watkins’s errors.
First, for the uninitiated: Trinity Lutheran involves a Missouri state program, the “Scrap Tire Grant Program,” that provides grants to schools and pre-schools to support the installation of rubber playground surfaces to replace gravel or blacktop. Trinity Lutheran Church operates a pre-school and daycare. Trinity Lutheran applied for a playground grant, but was denied because its daycare is a ministry of the church Trinity Lutheran was otherwise eligible for the grant. And there was no serious question that the rubber-playground-resurfacing grant was an entirely secular benefit program.
The State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) based its rejection of Trinity Lutheran’s application on the Missouri Constitution, as interpreted by the Missouri Supreme Court. The provision at issue states: “No money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect or denomination of religion.”
That frames the core constitutional issue presented by the case: May a state exclude a religious organization from an otherwise neutral, secular government program solely because of the religious identity, values, expression, or mission of that religious group?