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Attorneys for Columbia church get $433,000 from state

The attorneys that helped a Columbia church win a First Amendment case against the state in front of the U.S. Supreme Court will get $433,791.96.

District Judge Nanette Laughrey ordered the state pay the team from the Alliance Defending Freedom for its work on behalf of Trinity Lutheran Church. The ADF had originally asked for more than $890,000, but Laughrey disagreed with the hourly rates the team had requested they be paid at and the number of hours worked.

The church took the state to court after the Department of Natural Resources denied its grant for a soft-surface playground because it was a religious organization. The Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that churches have the same rights as other charitable groups to seek state money. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that it “is odious to our Constitution” to exclude the church from the grant program.

Laughrey said that “most of the rates Plaintiff’s attorneys propose are not reasonable.” Laughrey said it was inappropriate to base the hourly rates each attorney requested on a national scale. Laughrey said that just because the church did not know of any other local law firm that was experienced in religious freedom cases and could argue in front of the Supreme Court does not mean they were unable to find one.

While Attorney General Josh Hawley lauded the Supreme Court decision in favor of Trinity Lutheran, his office opposed the granting of the $891,610.41.

Mary Compton, spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, declined to comment on the decision.

Laughrey cut the hourly rate for several attorneys by hundreds of dollars an hour. Missouri case law, she said, supported a rate of up to $375 an hour for “an experienced First Amendment litigator.” Six of the 14 people ADF hoped to get fees paid for asked for a rate above that. The most expensive among them, David Cortman, was awarded fees at $450 an hour, Laughrey said, because the attorney general’s office “apparent concession that $450 would be a reasonable hourly rate.”

Then-Gov. Eric Greitens reversed the policy to ban religious organizations from getting state grants shortly before the case was argued in Washington, D.C.

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