Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia
Trinity Lutheran Church has faithfully served the people of small-town Columbia, Missouri for over 90 years. Whether providing support for foster children, donating labor, food, and funds to a local county food bank, or helping with Habitat for Humanity building projects all over the community, Trinity Lutheran Church lives its mission to make disciples.
Another aspect of Trinity Lutheran’s ministry is to run a child learning center that is open to all members of the community with children age 2 to kindergarten. In 2012, Trinity Lutheran Church Child Learning Center sought to participate in the Playground Scrap Tire Surface Materials Grant Program that was administered by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The grant program recycles scrap tires into rubber playground surfaces in an attempt to reduce the amount of tires in landfills and to foster children’s safety. The center wished to remove and replace a large portion of the pea gravel surface of its playgrounds with a pour-in-place rubberized product made from recycled tires. Replacing the surface provided a higher level of safety for the children at the center and all the children in the community who use the playground after school hours and on weekends.
Trinity Lutheran submitted its grant application, and the DNR ranked it fifth out of 44 applicants due to numerous factors, including the poverty level of the surrounding area. But, instead of awarding the grant, the DNR pointed to a section of the state constitution that prohibits government aid to religion and promptly disqualified the learning center solely because it was operated by a church.
In December 2011, the church contacted Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), requesting our intervention in the matter. After just over a year of case development, in January 2013, we filed a lawsuit on behalf of Trinity Lutheran Church against the director of the DNR. The district judge ruled for the state and dismissed the case. ADF appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, which ruled to uphold the district court’s decision.
Committed to preserving the rights of the church, ADF petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court in November 2015 to take the case.
“Seeking to protect children from harm while they play tag and go down the slide is about as far from an ‘essentially religious endeavor’ as one can get,” explains the ADF petition. “The DNR’s religious exclusion sends a message that Trinity’s children are less worthy of protection simply because they play on a playground owned by a church. This is not a mild disapproval of religion."
The U.S. Supreme Court accepted the petition to hear the case, and oral arguments are set for April 19, 2017.
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Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer
What's at stake
- The freedom of churches to be treated equally by the government
- The freedom from discrimination against churches solely because of their religious identity
- The freedom of churches and ministries to participate in neutral government grant programs on the same basis as all others
- The right of churches to be treated as full members of the community and not be discriminated against or disadvantaged because of their religious faith
Trinity Lutheran Church is located in Columbia, Missouri. Trinity operates a preschool for children in the community. It has a playground where the children from the preschool play. Children from the surrounding community also use the playground after school and on the weekends. 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 5th and it gave out 14 grants that year. But the Department denied a grant to Trinity because it was a church. The Department relied on the “no aid” clause in the state constitution. That provision was added to the constitution in the 1870’s and prohibits direct or indirect aid to churches.
The United States Supreme Court accepted the petition to hear the case, and oral arguments are set for April 19, 2017.
Our role in this case
Alliance Defending Freedom represents Trinity Lutheran Church. We are defending the church’s freedom to participate equally in neutral government programs and not be discriminated against solely because of the church’s religious identity.