Playground or Church? Implications for Public Administration from Trinity Lutheran v. Comer

Date01 January 2019
Published date01 January 2019
104 Public Administration Review Januar y | Fe brua ry 201 9
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 79, Iss. 1, pp. 104–112. Published 2017.
This article is a U.S. Government work and is
in the public domain in the USA.
DOI: 10.1111/puar.12898.
Abstract: The roots of public administration are in the fields of management, political science, and the law. The
law is underrepresented in the literature and is not as well understood by nonlawyer practitioners, yet it increasingly
enables, constrains, and prescribes government action. In 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a case involving
whether a government grant awarded on secular criteria must be provided to a qualified church. This article
contributes to the field’s understanding of the interplay of law and administration by examining the constitutional
issues in the case and their implications for public administration. By considering how this dispute was framed and
the ways in which the court approached its resolution, public officials can better understand the issues in similar cases;
anticipate potential disputes; and (re)design policies that will serve their communities, remain within constitutional
limits, and reduce the likelihood of litigation.
Evidence for Practice
• Public administration is based in management, political science, and the law, so effective public
administrators need to stay abreast of developments in the law when designing policies and programs.
• A given set of facts can be interpreted through different legal lenses, each with unique implications for public
• While direct service areas of government such as education, housing, and human resources have become
sensitive to constitutional considerations, other areas of public service are becoming increasingly affected.
• The contours of the constitutional requirement of government neutrality toward religion continue to be
tested and evolve.
Philip J. Candreva
Naval Postgraduate School
Playground or Church? Implications for Public
Administration from Trinity Lutheran v. Comer
Philip J. Candreva is senior lecturer of
budgeting and public policy in the Graduate
School of Business and Public Policy, Naval
Postgraduate School. His teaching and
research interests are in public budgeting,
national defense budgeting, public
policy, and law. He is author of National
Defense Budgeting and Financial
Management, published in 2017.
Rosenbloom, O’Leary, and Chanin (2010a)
remind us that legal developments have
significant implications for public
administration. “Government can no longer distribute
benefits with little or no regard for equal protection.
It cannot attach whatever conditions it desires to the
receipt of public benefits” (2010b, 144). Rosenbloom
and Naff, commenting on public administration
education, emphasize that “[t]here is no doubt that
law is relevant to public administrative practice. Law
establishes, empowers, structures, and constrains agencies
and programs” (2010, 217). And Wright suggests
that public administration practitioners look to U.S.
Supreme Court decisions to guide behavior, and he notes
the need for scholars to “identify and interpret important
cases for public administration practitioners and scholars
who have limited formal legal training” (2011, 99).
He suggests that law journals fill that need, but public
administrators are less likely to read law journals than
PAR. This article is one step in that direction.
In June 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court rendered its
decision in the case of Trinity Lutheran Church of
Columbia, Inc. v. Comer (137 S. Ct. 2012), a dispute
over whether a state grant, generally available to the
public, must be provided to a church that meets
the program’s secular eligibility criteria. It had been
15 years since the Supreme Court dealt with a case
involving public monies going to a church. The issues
in this case were significant enough that 19 states filed
amici curiae briefs with the court.1
This article begins with a short recitation of the facts
of the case and then explains the legal landscape in
which the case sat. The arguments of the two parties
are described, followed by a discussion of the several
opinions delivered by the justices of the Supreme
Court. The goal of providing this background, and
not simply explaining the outcome, is to provide
public administration scholars and practitioners some
insight into how such controversies arise and are
resolved. The article concludes with implications for
public administration.
The Missouri Department of Natural Resources
(DNR) runs a waste management program that
Research Article

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