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Generational Wins: How A Playground Helped Protect Religious Freedom

March 3, 2021

A generational win is a significant victory that changes the law and culture of the nation for a generation. Deliberate action is taken following that victory in order to ensure that it endures for generations to come.

This is the first in a series of blog posts that will outline how some key courtroom victories help protect freedom in five critical areas.

Download a PDF version of this post here. 

Religious Freedom

WHO: Trinity Lutheran Church

WHAT: The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer

The State of Missouri operates a program giving grants to nonprofit groups to pave their playgrounds with soft rubber made from recycled tires to make them safer for children. Trinity Lutheran Church applied for a grant to place such a surface at the playground for its child learning center. Even though the church scored fifth out of 44 applications competing for 14 grants, the State denied the grant to Trinity Lutheran because of a state constitutional provision that prohibited government aid to churches for any purpose. In other words, Missouri said “no” to the church simply because it was a church.

WHEN: Missouri denied the grant to Trinity Lutheran in 2012. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Trinity Lutheran in 2017.

WHERE: Columbia, Missouri

WHY: Trinity Lutheran had one goal: to replace a pea gravel surface on the playground of its learning center with a softer rubber surface in order to provide a safer place to play for children in its community. The State of Missouri had one goal: give grants to nonprofit groups to install these softer playground surfaces in order to recycle tires piling up in landfills.

By the state program’s own criteria, Trinity Lutheran was eminently qualified to receive a grant to replace the pea gravel with recycled rubber. But the State said “no” because the learning center was connected to a church, and the state constitution prohibited government aid to a church.

THE OUTCOME: The Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that Missouri violated the First Amendment when it applied its state constitution to exclude churches and other faith-based organizations from receiving a grant from a government program simply because of their religious identity.

HOW IT AFFECTS YOU NOW: The Supreme Court’s decision affirms that states cannot single out religious groups for exclusion from programs they are otherwise eligible to participate in, simply because they are religious.

The case has already influenced religious liberty throughout the country in multiple ways:

  1. The U.S. Attorney General cited Trinity Lutheran in a comprehensive guide on religious freedom to be used by all federal agencies and executive departments.
  2. In Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, the Montana Supreme Court invalidated a tuition tax credit program that benefitted private schools because the money taxpayers donated to charity could eventually make its way—through parents’ and students’ private choices—to religious schools. Relying on Trinity Lutheran , the Supreme Court reversed the Montana Supreme Court’s decision in 2020, forbidding the state to shut down neutral benefit programs simply because parents and children choose a religious option.

HOW IT AFFECTS YOUR FUTURE: The Alliance Defending Freedom victory at the high court in Trinity Lutheran sets an invaluable precedent that will promote equal treatment for religious groups for years to come. But the work is far from over.

We know the threats to religious liberty, free speech, the sanctity of human life, and parental rights will not stop. And when those fundamental rights are violated, ADF stands ready to defend them in courtrooms at every level, all across the nation. That’s exactly what we have been doing for more than 25 years. And with God’s blessing we will continue to do so. Will you join us?

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Alliance Defending Freedom

Alliance Defending Freedom

Non-profit organization

Alliance Defending Freedom advocates for your right to freely live out your faith


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