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, ADF 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 United States Supreme Court accepted the petition to hear the case, and oral arguments were heard on April 19, 2017.
Thankfully, 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 board precedent for religious freedom.
In October 2018, children at the Learning Center were finally able to enjoy a new, safe playground surface.