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Supreme Court rules for Missouri church in ‘playground’ case

Gravel paves the playground of Trinity Lutheran Church’s Child Learning Center in Columbia, Mo., on Oct. 18, 2016. RNS photo by Sally Morrow

(RNS) The Supreme Court has ruled for a Missouri church that claimed religious discrimination after it was refused state funds to improve its playground.

Ruling 7-2, the court Monday (June 26) determined that the state had treated Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia unfairly under the First Amendment’s free exercise clause.

The state wrongly denied the church “an otherwise available public benefit on account of its religious status,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion.

“This Court has repeatedly confirmed that denying a generally available benefit solely on account of religious identity imposes a penalty on the free exercise of religion,” he continued.

The case pitted Trinity Lutheran Church against Missouri’s Department of Natural Resources, which offered grants to help nonprofits pay for the resurfacing of playgrounds with recycled tires.

Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented in the case, considered by many court watchers to be the highest profile of the Supreme Court season, which runs from October through early summer.

“To hear the Court tell it, this is a simple case about recycling tires to resurface a playground. The stakes are higher. This case is about nothing less than the relationship between religious institutions and the civil government — that
is, between church and state,” Sotomayor wrote.

“The Court today profoundly changes that relationship by holding, for the
first time, that the Constitution requires the government to provide public funds directly to a church. Its decision slights both our precedents and our history, and its reasoning weakens this country’s longstanding commitment to a separation of church and state beneficial to both.”

Conservative advocates for religious freedom cheered the decision.

“The government should treat children’s safety at religious schools the same as it does at nonreligious schools,” David Cortman, senior counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom, said in a statement.

The ADF argued the case at the Supreme Court on behalf of the church, which runs a children’s learning center.

“The decision today affirms that commonsense principle and the larger truth that government isn’t being neutral when it treats religious organizations worse than everyone else,” Cortman continued.

About the author

Lauren Markoe

Lauren Markoe has been a national reporter for RNS since 2011. Previously she covered government and politics as a daily reporter at the Charlotte Observer and The State (Columbia, S.C.)

36 Comments

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  • “There is no discrimination against Christians,” so say the misotheists: “You are big whiny babies. Get over it.” SCOTUS said otherwise. “The state wrongly denied the church “an otherwise available public benefit on account of its religious status,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion.” The state lost; religious freedom won. This proves that even in an extremely conservative state like MO the forces against religious freedom operate. Thanks SCOTUS.

  • Oh, but you know what the religious fundies will do -they will use this as their springboard to pull public funding away from public education and divert it to private religious schools. VOUCHERS. Don’t believe me? just watch.

  • This school is not part of our public education system. They want public funds for their playground? Then they play by public school rules. That’s a sword that cuts both ways. The day our public education system is drained of funds for a voucher system will be the day America ceases to be America and is turned into a Christian caliphate. WRONG.

  • Sounds reasonable. Last few rulings of SCOTUS have been highly encouraging. Hopefully more to come.

  • And additionally, you may rest assured that America will never become a “Christian caliphate,” which is a misapplication of the term in any case.

  • I was not surprised at the ruling and I won’t lose any sleep over a church day care getting a safer playground surface. While it addressed a narrow issue of whether a church non-profit should be treated differently, this ruling will likely play a role when school vouchers becomes an issue.

  • Just remember that those funds could also go to a Muslim day care or preschool. I’m sure you, in the interest of fairness, you would have no problem with your state tax dollars going to them. Right?

  • I believe you have widened the scope of this particular decision. These funds were available to all non-profits with no strings attached as it dealt solely with safer playground surfaces. It basically ruled, in this instance, that the church should be treated like any other nonprofit.

  • What if school vouchers result in more freedom of choice for parents and children and a higher quality of education? Okay then?

  • Muslim children are just as precious as Christian children. Why would I have a problem?

  • “To hear the Court tell it, this is a simple case about recycling tires to resurface a playground. The stakes are higher. This case is about nothing less than the relationship between religious institutions and the civil government — that is, between church and state,” Sotomayor wrote.

    So, Sotomayor is concerned that there would be dire consequences to our constitutional separation of church and state if this state government were to spend taypayer funds on recycled tires to prevent little kids from skinning their knees when they fall down!

    That argument is rather silly and far-fetched. How about an even sillier, more far-fetched one: Lawyers for this church could argue against government interference in the resurfacing of the church’s playground on the principle of equal protection of the law! Lots of the drivers of vehicles from which those used tires came, were driven by CHRISTIANS!

  • I never ever want to hear a fundamentalist complain about the funding PP receives for its work due to this decision! I don’t want my tax payer dollars going to religion!

  • I haven’t studied this issue. I don’t want to see tax dollars going into any (Christian, Jewish, Muslim, etc.) religious schools because their outcomes are not religiously neutral or secular. The monies can be used to promote, elevate and favor that particular religion or denomination. That is the conflict I see. I personally don’t want to see funds going to schools that don’t teach accepted science.

  • PP wanted some recycled tires to improve a playground for who (I mean for “whom”)? That is macabre.

  • The whole interpretation of recent years regarding the separation is way out of line from the 18th century construction of the constitution. The ruling was good and reasonable. Many nations have total freedom of religion and function quite well treating all citizens equal while supporting religious schools or religious instructions in public schools. Maybe we would have a more cohesive political situation if we could move away from this whole debate by respecting religion instead of allowing the left and right to politicizing it.

  • Bad cases make bad law. While I think this ruling is wrong, it may be only a minor, peripheral ruling. Remember that in 1968 the Court upheld a NY textbook loan program, just a year after NY voters had voted 72% to 28% to keep the state constitution’s ban on tax aid for church-run schools. Then in 1971, in Lemon v Kurtzman, the Court began handing down rulings sharply curtailing tax aid to church-run schools. But make no mistake, the Trump/DeVos/Pence gang and most GOP lawmakers are hostile to public schools, real religious liberty, and church-state separation, and want to undermine and privatize the public schools that have long served 90% of our kids.

    Let’s remember: 1: That the First Amendment, augmented by the 14th, and provisions in 3/4 of the state constitutions were intended to prevent tax aid to religious institutions; 2. That in 28 state referenda from coast to coast between 1966 and 2014 millions of citizens voted 2 to 1 against any and all gimmicks to divert public funds to church-run schools; 3. That between 2008 and 2016 in 35 states per student spending for public schools declined by an average of 7%, while tax aid to church/mosque schools increased in such backward, GOP-run states as Indiana and North Carolina.

    All Americans need to rally round our besieged public schools.

    Edd Doerr, President, Americans for Religious Liberty

  • George is quite uninformed. The First Amendment, applied to the states by the 14th,and 3/4 of the state constitutions clearly intend church-state separation, as Jefferson noted in 1802 and as the Supreme Court reaffirmed in 1879, long before the Court’s famous Everson ruling in 1947. — Edd Doerr

  • Despite inadequate funding, 70% of parents (40 years of Gallup education polls) give an A or B grade to the public school attended by their oldest child. Yes, there are some failures, due to widespread poverty and to inequitably distributed funding. — Edd Doerr

  • True. They think everybody else’s schools are bad but their own. But public perception and reality are two different things. The data based on test scores shows that our schools are mediocre at best. In fact just recently an article reported that colleges are not improving the critical thinking skills of their students. Nobody knows why.

  • The top 3/4 of our kids are comparable to international averages. It’s the underfunded inner city schools for poor kids that are pulling the averages down. The 70% who are happy with their kids schools is the figure that counts, but the lower figures for all schools that represent the effects of the long barrages of anti public school propaganda. — ED

  • But these are nice kids in your neighborhood..gee I guess you hate religious people who are peaceful with others…so when are you joining ISIS?

  • What does that mean: 3/4th of our kid are comparable to international averages. Break that down for us.
    Addendum: where do American kids fall in reading, math, and science compared to the rest of the world?
    You can try to put a positive spin on it but I’ve spent 34 years in public education and I’ve seen up close what goes on and all I can say is all is not what it seems. You know what I mean, Ed. Eg. the dramatic overnight rise in test scores in Atlanta, GA. You know the story. You don’t think it doesn’t happen in a lot of other districts. It does! I wouldn’t trust any district’s test scores. Administrator’s job are riding on increasing test scores. And when test scores don’t go up they don’t keep their cushy jobs – so one way or another test scores go up.

  • But public schools aren’t for everyone. Why should those parents who pay taxes not get the freedom of choice? Why must they pay taxes and subsidize other people’s kids while they have to cough up tuition for their own kids to get an education they want them to have? Why must it be one size fits all?

  • I am also a former PS teacher. What I meant was simply this: the top 3/4 of kids in US public schools rate about even with all the kids in most European schools. What pulls our average down is our largely segregated city schools serving poorer kids. — ED

  • Not if right-minded Americans who understand our Constitution have anything to say/do about it.

  • Not in this instance. It’s wholly appropriate, just twisted a bit to mean “Christian”. And we are already headed in that direction.

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