Religious Freedom Advocates Hail 'Huge' Victory in Church Playground Case

Susan Jones | June 26, 2017 | 10:50am EDT
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U.S. Supreme Court (Wikimedia Commons)

( - The Supreme Court ruled on Monday that the Missouri Department of Natural Resources violated the rights of a church preschool by denying it a grant to resurface its playground with rubber from recycled tires.

The Department had a strict and express policy of denying grants to any applicant owned or controlled by a church, sect, or other religious entity, and when it ultimately awarded 14 grants as part of the 2012 program, the Trinity Lutheran Church Child Learning Center was not among the group.

Trinity Lutheran sued in federal court, alleging that the Department’s failure to approve its application violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

Writing for the court, Chief Justice John  Roberts concluded:

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources has not subjected anyone to chains or torture on account of religion. And the result of the State’s policy is nothing so dramatic as the denial of political office. The consequence is, in all likelihood, a few extra scraped knees. But the exclusion of Trinity Lutheran from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, solely because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution all the same, and cannot stand.

Conservative groups hailed the ruling, which only two of the justices opposed in full.

“The government should treat children’s safety at religious schools the same as it does at nonreligious schools," said the Alliance Defending Freedom in a statement after the ruling came down.

"The Supreme Court’s 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. Equal treatment of a religious organization in a program that provides only secular benefits, like a partial reimbursement grant for playground surfacing, isn’t a government endorsement of religion.

"As the Supreme Court rightly found, unequal treatment that singles out a preschool for exclusion from such a program simply because a church runs the school is clearly unconstitutional,” ADF wrote.

The Family Research Council also applauded today's  ruling:

"This win for Trinity Lutheran Church is a win for the freedoms that Americans have long exercised," said Travis Weber, FRC's Director of the Center for Religious Liberty.

"The state of Missouri was hardly fair to this congregation, whose children at the daycare and preschool need just as much outdoor padding as others. The Court clearly understood this and ruled that it is unconstitutional to treat religious organizations differently in the public square just because they are religious."

Weber also said conservatives are "much more optimisitic about the future of religious freedom in America" with the recent addition of Justice Neil Gorsuch to the court. "Justice Gorsuch's presence will re-enforce a welcome originalist voice in not just the Trinity Lutheran case but also plenty of pivotal cases in the decades to come."

Justice Sonya Sotomayor, joined in her dissent by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, wrote:

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. 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.

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