Are parochial facilities with secular uses eligible for tax-exempt bond financing?

BMO’s Kareem Spratling talked earlier this month with The Bond Buyer magazine about the implications of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer decision. Religious institutions with secular uses, like public playgrounds, may now be eligible for tax-exempt bond financing.

On June 26, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 7-2 decision, held that the government cannot exclude religious institutions from generally available, secular government programs solely because of the institutions’ religious character.

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A key potential reification of this ruling is that religious institutions are now on solid legal footing to apply for tax-exempt bonds for building projects that are unrelated to religious instruction or ministry.

Historically, religious entities – most often a church and adjoining school – struggled to obtain bond financing due to uncertainty surrounding the breadth of the U.S. Establishment Clause and Blaine Amendments. The U.S. Establishment Clause and the Blaine Amendments (enacted in more than 35 states) were enacted to further the separation of church and state, including prohibiting direct government aid to educational institutions whose religious mission cannot be separated from their purpose. 

 In Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, the U.S. Supreme Court opinion highlighted a distinction between the status of the applying entity and the actual use of the facility being financed. In essence, the ruling stated that the intended use of the facility carries significantly more weight than the religious status of the applying entity.  

 “Previously, even if religious entities were not explicitly ineligible for bonds, financiers would shy away from these potentially controversial projects,” said Kareem Spratling, Bryant Miller Olive shareholder and public finance expert. “With this decision, I am now confidently recommending bonding as a potential funding avenue for clients trying to fund secular projects such as playgrounds and gymnasiums.” 

 Spratling says several things for religious institutions to consider include the specific use of the project, if the facility would be open and available to the public, and if the project, while not directly tied to religious instruction, may have some crossover with religious instruction – for example, a roof that covers both a church and gymnasium.  

 As with any landmark decision, Spratling advises there is a strong possibility of further clarifying litigation on this issue around the country as religious entities move to utilize tax-exempt bonding for their projects. Due to the complex nature of bonding and the legal uncertainty of the landscape, entities should seek legal advice from bonding experts to determine if their project qualifies.