Martin Marty: Sightings Opinion

Children on Christian or Secular swings?

Photo Credit: Lydia Liu/Flickr

Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Pauley is a grabbing lawsuit name for those of us who do “sightings” of religion in American public life. It features in a story in The Kansas City Star. The suit has to do with whether children playing on swings and merry-go-rounds on the playground of a Christian day school in Columbia, Missouri, are engaging in religion-related activities, which are protected by law but in this case could present a problem for the American tradition(s) of church-and-state relations. The lookers-on who watch for tough cases on the U.S. Supreme Court’s docket predict that this parochial issue, and the Court’s decision about it, will have an enduring influence on how government relates to religion.

These little swingers take their place on the regular merry-go-round of Court agendas. One year they, their schools, their practices, and their counterparts nationally are the subjects of decisions which appear to be “religious” and, on the next go-around, appear to be “secular.” Picture yourself as a judge who must deal with issues of this sort, as detailed in Rick Montgomery’s story in the Star. I myself am a product of parish-related (a term I like better than “parochial”) education of the Lutheran brand; our own parish, St. Luke Lutheran in Chicago, supports an academy; and I can testify to the quality of education in many such schools as well as to the pervasive influence of faith in the teaching and formation of children. So, what’s the problem?

Sightings has dealt with these issues as early as April 17, 2001, when we cited Walter Berns. He was a conservative constitutional scholar who regularly pointed out that a republic like ours—whose Constitution says, in the First Amendment, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”—must locate religious institutions as legally subordinate to the state. If not, we’d live in a theocracy, however benign it may seem to be. Berns knew that saying things like that did not settle the matter. The Founders, he noted, “solved” the religion problem by not solving the religious problem, which is why we still have to debate it each year.

The Columbia, Missouri, case involves a Lutheran parish’s day school, whose stewards want state-supported funds to pay for a minor but safety-enhancing resurfacing of the school’s playground. The American Civil Liberties Union argues, and lower courts have agreed, that subsidizing the upkeep of such a playground violates the canons of “separation of church and state,” because everything that happens on the school’s premises is “religious” or religion-related. The Alliance Defending Freedom disagrees, and says that play and playground at schools like Trinity Lutheran are not a religious activity and site, even by extension. They are recess-related.

As I read Montgomery’s article, I find reasons to agree with the ACLU on one aspect of the case, which will be adjudicated in the months ahead, and, a few lines later, with the ADF, whose reasons are also somehow compelling. And, like many other citizens, I have sympathy for the Court and lower courts when they have to deal with these never-solved and never totally solvable religious issues. I hope that Sightings readers will read the story and follow the case. Some will regard the issue as “solved,” and the Court to be ideologically “religious” or “secular” once more. They may regard this columnist as ideologically muddled or wishy-washy. But I remember and note how the best Christian (and, I suppose, other parochial) schools take “holistic” approaches, whereby the faith is to be developed and realized all over the place and all of the time. But, then again, one can be aware of such and also celebrate the fact that the institutions of a republic are free of state influence and control, that the institutions of religion are not dependent on state support, including the financial support of people who do not share a particular faith. We can celebrate that we live in a republic that deals with the addressable but not solvable issues of life. Can’t we?

About the author

Martin E. Marty

"Marty" is one of the most prominent interpreters of religion and culture today. Author of more than 50 books, he is also a speaker, columnist, pastor, and teacher, having been a professor of religious history for 35 years at the University of Chicago.


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  • Upgrading a playground for the purposes of safety and compliance with local ordinances is as rational and secular a purpose as one can find.

    The fact that a religious institution is requesting the funds is immaterial here. There is no church/state entanglement with such an issue. Provided that the money is only used for that purpose.

    Now why a private school would be entitled to state funds in such a matter is strictly a local matter. But I would assume if the funding is used for both public and private schools, and strictly for safety related improvements, then it avoids the whole 1st Amendment situation altogether.

    Its strange to see the “Alliance Defending Freedom” doing the following:
    1. Demonstrating an honest understanding of 1st Amendment religious freedom and its limits
    2. Supporting a client who is using not religious belief as an excuse to deny civil liberties others.
    3. Claiming something mundane is not some religious practice from which to claim Christian privilege over others.
    This is very unusual for them! I am pleasantly surprised.

  • we have to look how the courts have decided these cases before now. Our opinion means nothing. The money goes to the church and who knows what it is used for from there. If I were them (and not a church) I would get bids on commercial companies doing the work with all applicable taxes, then when the money comes haul in a load of tire material and let the congregation spread it, keeping the change. Since this is church that is what we are concerned with, allowing them to use the money for religious instruction or materials.

  • The excuse for not funding Planned Parenthood is we can’t know how much is leaking through to abortion services. Same thing here. Improving the grounds makes the property more valuable and that money will go to religion. The alliance defense firm will represent them for no charge, but if they lose they don’t pay fines/fees/attorney’s fees to the winning party which could be around a million$?

  • Fair enough. But if the church actually submits plans to fix up the playground and has professional estimates and contractors plans for the work, it would go a long way in justifying the effort.

  • If they could provide proof the money went to and stayed with the contractor. Some churches don’t pay real money, they pay in tax deductable certificates.

  • Rather than merely upvote you, I feel compelled to compliment you on the logic of your argument. Though by viewpoint we rarely find concordance, occasionally it is pleasant to find even a brief nexus of agreement.

  • It seems a slippery slope if the playground and its equipment and the maintenance of said property is not really part of the actual church and its ministry, as the Lutherans are saying, then that property should be subject to any local, state, and Federal taxes. I wonder if churches really want to open that potential can of worms. I, for one, would love to see it opened widely and spread everywhere we can.

  • I do not see it as a muddled question. The playground and the equipment there is property of the religious institution. The teaching within the school is based on religion. What happens during recess should not have a bearing…. the school, and that means teacher salaries, all equipment and supplies are the responsibility of the school since it chose to be separate from the public system and public funding. I am sure they do want whatever public money they can get! That does not mean they should be entitled to it.

  • Not even for compliance with local safety regulations? Of course I am assuming the state has some kind of program which applies to private institutions for such matters. I may be completely wrong on that. If there is nothing in place for eligibility for funds in code compliance for private schools, then there is no argument to be made for them.

  • The question is not whether Missouri could include the resurfacing in a non-discriminatory way that does not violate the 1st Amendment. The question is whether the 1st or 14th Amendments *compel* Missouri to do so. It may seem like a minute difference but it’s important to this case.
    On a separate note, it’s fun to see the sides kind of switched here. You have the ACLU arguing that a playground and recess is intricately tied to the school’s religious mission. In prior cases, the ACLU has argued that the ministerial exception to discrimination cases should only provide a defense if the school’s conduct is motivated by religion. So a Sunday school music teacher subjected to a pastor’s “secular” sexual harassment should be allowed to sue the church.

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