Trinity Lutheran Church is located in Columbia, Missouri. The church operates a preschool called The Learning Center, which has a playground on site for use by students and the community at large. In 2012, Trinity applied for a playground resurfacing grant from the Department of Natural Resources of the State of Missouri. The grant was part of the state’s Scrap Tire Program that recycles scrap tire material in an attempt to reduce the amount of tires in landfills. Trinity’s playground was surfaced with pea gravel that was hard on the children if they fell, and it kept migrating away from the slides and other play structures. Trinity wanted a grant to resurface its playground with a pour-in-place rubber surface made from recycled tires.
The Department received 44 applications in 2012. It ranked Trinity’s application fifth, and it gave out 14 grants that year. But the Department denied a grant to Trinity solely because the preschool was operated by a church, basing its decision on a state constitutional clause that prohibited aid to churches.
Trinity filed suit in 2013, seeking to protect the safety of its students, as well as the community members who use the playground after hours and on weekends. After the Court of Appeals ruled against Trinity, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.
On June 26, 2017, Trinity Lutheran Church won its case at the Supreme Court. The Court ruled 7-2 that the government cannot exclude churches and other faith-based organizations from a secular government program simply because of their religious identity, setting a broad precedent for religious freedom.
In October 2018, children at the Learning Center were finally able to enjoy a new, safe playground surface.
Our role in this case
Alliance Defending Freedom represented Trinity Lutheran Church all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. We defended the church’s freedom to participate equally in neutral government programs and not be discriminated against solely because of the church’s religious identity.
Kristen K. Waggoner serves as General Counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom. Her role includes oversight of the U.S. legal division, a team of 100 attorneys and staff who engage in litigation, public advocacy, and legislative support.