On April 19, the United States Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in what one New York Times reporter called “the most interesting case of the upcoming SCOTUS term.” Those are big words, and our case, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Pauley, does not disappoint.
Here are three things that you didn’t know about the Trinity Lutheran playground case at the U.S. Supreme Court.
1. Generally available public benefits should be accessible by everyone and no one should be denied simply because of their religious status.
It’s hard to imagine a state would ever tell a religious school that they can’t ask their friendly neighborhood firemen to put out a fire. Or that they wouldn’t send the local detectives to investigate a case of arson or vandalism. These are generally available public benefits that are designed to serve the whole community. Insisting that the state can’t allow religious organizations to participate in these generally-available benefits simply because they are religious has nothing to do with “separation of church and state,” and everything to do with religious discrimination.
Ensuring child safety in the community is no different.
When Trinity Lutheran Church’s preschool set out to find a way to keep the kids safer on their playground—which is open to the entire community—Missouri’s Scrap Tire Grant Program seemed like the perfect solution. The program provides reimbursement for recycled scrap tires that are transformed into a pour-in-place rubber playground surface that helps protect children’s physical safety. Out of the 44 nonprofits that applied for the playground surface grant, Trinity Lutheran was ranked as the fifth most qualified application. However, the preschool was denied solely because it is run by a church.
Do you see the problem here?
2. When the state rejected Trinity Lutheran, it put both religious and non-religious children at risk.
Trinity Lutheran’s preschool has an “open gate” policy to neighborhood families after-hours and on the weekends, just like many public schools. But the kids and families that benefit from the playground are finding that their faith, or the faith of the people who own the playground, disqualifies them from fair and equal treatment by the government. Is that the lesson we want to be teaching our communities?
The state’s argument that providing the grant to Trinity Lutheran would violate separation of church and state and provide illegal aid to religion, simply doesn’t hold. Community safety, especially for children, is not a religious issue—it is a public safety issue.
3. The Trinity Lutheran case is one of the most important religious freedom cases that the United States Supreme Court has heard in years.
What makes this case so interesting is what’s at stake.
The Trinity Lutheran playground case is a pivotal case for religious freedom for all Americans. A victory assures people of faith that the government cannot discriminate against religious organizations and exclude them from receiving generally available public benefits because of their religious affiliation. And that’s something we should all be able to get behind.
The bottom line is that Trinity Lutheran simply wants to be treated equally and to ensure that the children in their community have a safe place to play.
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