— Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys appealed
to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit Tuesday in a federal lawsuit filed against Missouri officials on behalf of a Columbia Christian pre-school and daycare center.
Although the state said the center is highly qualified for a program that provides recycled tires for children’s playgrounds, it denied the center’s application solely because a church runs the daycare. Program officials admitted in the course of the lawsuit that they have allowed other religious daycare centers to participate on at least 15 occasions; nonetheless, a federal judge declined to reconsider her September 2013 decision to dismiss the lawsuit.
“The safety of children on this Christian pre-school playground is just as important as the safety of children on other playgrounds. Providing grants for recycled tires to create a safe environment for children is not a government promotion of any religious doctrine,” said Senior Counsel Joel Oster. “The state was right not to discriminate against the other 15 religious daycare centers; it is wrong to discriminate against this one. That’s why we are appealing to the 8th Circuit.”
Trinity Lutheran Church Child Learning Center in Columbia sought a grant from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources Solid Waste Management Program to participate in the 2012 Playground Scrap Tire Surface Material Grant Program. The center wished to remove and replace a large portion of the pea gravel surfacing on its playgrounds with a safer, recycled, pour-in-place rubberized product.
Because the program has a limited amount of money to distribute, the department ranks the applications to determine which applicants will receive grants. Trinity Lutheran scored fifth out of 44 applicants, and the department provided grants to 14 projects in 2012. Nonetheless, the department disqualified Trinity Lutheran solely because it is operated by Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia. The church is heavily involved in numerous efforts benefitting the community.
Despite the fact that the department recently admitted that it allowed religious pre-schools to participate on at least 15 occasions, it continues to defend its denial of Trinity Lutheran’s application by pointing to a section of the state constitution that prohibits government funding of religion. Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys explain, however, that providing grant monies for the purpose of purchasing recycled tires for a playground is clearly not furthering religious purposes.
“That same section of the state constitution also states that ‘no preference shall be given to nor any discrimination made against any church, sect or creed of religion, or any form of religious faith or worship,’” said Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley. “The state cannot single out this pre-school for exclusion when it has allowed other religious daycare centers to participate in the program in the past.”
Michael K. Whitehead, one of nearly 2,300 attorneys allied with Alliance Defending Freedom, is serving as local counsel in the case, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Pauley.