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Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer
Read the source
Oct 5, 2016
Noah Feldman: Supreme Court sets itself up for a quiet term
Case:Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer
Frequently Asked Questions
Who uses the playground at Trinity Lutheran’s Learning Center?
The preschool has an “open gate” playground policy. It is used by the preschool students and open to all in the community. The playground is frequently used by children in the neighborhood after-hours and on the weekends.
What is Missouri’s Scrap Tire Grant Program?
The state program provides reimbursement to non-profit organizations for rubber safety flooring for their playgrounds, using recycled tire scraps to make a “pour-in-place” rubber surface.
Why did Missouri create the Scrap Tire Grant Program?
To decrease the amount of used tires in Missouri’s landfills and illegal dump sites and foster children’s safety.
How does Missouri evaluate who is eligible for the Scrap Tire Grant Program?
The state ranks application according to secular and neutral criteria. Some of the criteria include whether the application describes the project in adequate detail, whether the project utilizes scrap tires from within the state, the percentage of low income families in the school and the community, and whether the school presents a detailed plan for installation.
What does the application for the Scrap Tire Grant Program entail?
The application is extremely detailed and requires a number of things, including an installation plan, a budget for the project, a media plan for advertising the benefits of recycling, and an education plan to teach students the benefits of recycling.
Where did The Learning Center rank in the application process?
Out of the 44 organizations that applied for the playground surface grant, Trinity Lutheran’s Learning Center application was ranked # 5 in meeting the qualifications. However, Trinity Lutheran’s preschool was denied solely because it is run by a church.
How is the Scrap Tire Grant Program funded?
Every person in Missouri – including people of faith – is required to pay a fee on their tire purchases. These fees fund the grant program. However, religious non-profit organizations are among those excluded from participating in the grant program; in other words, religious people are forced to put money into the pool, but the playgrounds at their religious organizations can’t benefit from it.
I’ve heard Missouri’s Scrap Tire Program referred to as a generally available public benefit. What is that?
Public benefits are things like food-stamps, police and fire service, bridge and road repair, etc. The state of Missouri rejecting The Learning Center’s application is like a city government fixing the sidewalks in the city, and the crew being told to leave the cracks in front of a church.
Do other states have constitutional provisions prohibiting state funds to religious organizations?
A little over thirty states have provisions similar to the one in Missouri’s Constitution prohibiting direct or indirect aid to religious organizations, but some, like Missouri’s, are applied much more strictly in excluding neutral benefits to religious groups. However, the only issue before the Court
in this case
is whether the exclusion of a religious preschool from a generally available secular and public benefit is a violation of the Constitution.
If the preschool wins this case at the Supreme Court, what is the significance?
A win at the Supreme Court will mean that the government cannot discriminate against religious organizations and exclude them from receiving a generally available public benefit simply because they are religious.
If this preschool loses the case at the Supreme Court, who is affected?
A loss could mean that religious nonprofits could be excluded from government programs meant to serve their communities and even be denied basic safety services like fire and police protection. The government shouldn’t deny children in religious preschools the same safety equipment as other children. If the First Amendment can’t guarantee neutrality, it can’t guarantee anything at all.
But isn’t money fungible? When the state gives money to a religious group, there is a possibility the group can use it for something other than its designated purpose like evangelism or a Bible study.
Not in this case. The playground rubber surface grant is a
grant; the receiving organization pays for the rubber surface first, then submits receipts and a record of costs to the state for reimbursement based on what they have already paid.
But the church is still free to worship and engage in religious activity. They aren’t being denied their right to engage in religious behavior.
But the preschool IS being denied access to a generally available secular benefit simply for being a religious school. Every child’s safety matters. The government shouldn’t make children in religious preschools less safe on playgrounds than other children. This is like saying a church can hold worship services, but if the building catches on fire, the government can stop firefighters and emergency workers from responding, simply because it’s a religious organization.
But isn’t this a situation of separation of church and state? Religious organizations can’t receive funds from the states. That’s violating the Establishment Clause.
No. The Supreme Court has held that the government cannot condition a person receiving a public benefit on their religious identity (
McDaniel v. Paty
, 435 U.S. 618 (1978). It also should be noted that every person in Missouri – including people of faith – is required to pay a fee on their tire purchases. These fees fund the grant program. However, religious non-profit organizations are excluded from participating in the grant program; in other words, religious people are forced to put money into the pool, but the playgrounds at their religious organizations can’t benefit from it. Equal treatment of a religious organization isn’t an endorsement. But unequal treatment is unconstitutional and unfair.
But it’s a playground surface – not a fundamental right.
But the government’s rejection of the preschool’s playground is connected to a fundamental right – here, the Free Exercise clause in the First Amendment and Equal Protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. The Missouri scrap tire program is a public grant program. The government is prohibited from treating people worse based solely on their religious status – here, treating people of faith like second-class citizens. Denying this church’s preschool from participating in the program is like saying the government can prohibit the police from responding to a burglary at a synagogue or mosque. This flies in the face of the Equal Protection Clause’s “direction that all persons similarly situated should be treated alike.” (
City of Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center
, 473 U.S. 432, 439 (1985)).
What is the Supreme Court case
Locke v. Davey
and does it apply here?
, the Supreme Court held that the state of Washington did not violate the Constitution when it denied scholarship funds for students pursuing a degree in devotional theology. In
, the Supreme Court was concerned by
the scholarship funds were going to be used for – the devotional training of clergy – not the identity of those
were using the money. In this case, The Learning Center at Trinity Lutheran does not seek funding for a religious endeavor – it merely wishes to participate in a generally available reimbursement program to obtain recycled scrap tires that are transformed into a pour-in-place rubber playground surface that protects children’s physical safety. Scrap tire surface has nothing to do with religion, and everything to do with children’s safety. A skinned knee hurts just as much on the grounds of religious preschool as it does at a secular one.
What are Blaine Amendments?
Provisions found in state constitutions like Missouri’s that go beyond the U.S. Constitution, prohibiting state funding at religiously-affiliated schools. They are named for James G. Blaine, a former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, who in 1875, proposed such an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The amendment ultimately failed, but a number of states adopted similar provisions in their state constitutions.
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