On April 19, the United States Supreme Court will hear oral argument in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer. Like all cases before the High Court, this one will have a significant impact nationwide. But what would a win in Trinity Lutheran mean for you? To understand that, let me explain what the case is about.
The Learning Center is a preschool and child care center operated by Trinity Lutheran. Like all preschools, The Learning Center has a playground where the kids enjoy recess and play time while at school, and which is open to the kids in the community during non-school hours. The playground was originally surfaced with pea gravel, which was hard on the knees and elbows. In 2012, Trinity Lutheran discovered that the State of Missouri offered a scrap tire grant reimbursement program which paid for a portion of resurfacing a playground with recycled tire material. This pour-in-place rubber surface would be much safer for the children as they played.
The grant program was available to all nonprofits and government entities like schools and parks. Trinity Lutheran filled out the extensive application which included many different neutral criteria. In 2012, 44 applications were filed, including Trinity Lutheran, and were ranked according to those criteria. Trinity Lutheran ranked 5th out of the 44 who applied. The state awarded 14 scrap tire grants that year, but Trinity Lutheran did not get a grant. Instead, it got a letter from the state saying that because The Learning Center was religious, it could not participate in the program.
When the Supreme Court hears oral argument in the case on April 19, it will confront the question whether a state can exclude religious people or organizations from neutral, secular public benefit programs. Put differently, can the State discriminate in these kinds of programs solely because of the religious status of those who apply?
Practically speaking, the Court’s answer to that question could have ramifications in a number of different contexts. For example:
- If Trinity Lutheran wins, religious daycares would be eligible to participate if a state begins a program that pays for security guards at preschools to protect children. If Trinity Lutheran loses, they would not be eligible for this defense against physical dangers to these children, such as kidnapping and mass shootings.
- Trinity Lutheran’s win would ensure that religious non-profits are reimbursed for physical damage done to their facilities when they open them to emergency responders after a natural disaster. But if Trinity Lutheran loses, states could refuse things like replacing bloodied or soiled carpets if a facility of a religious organization is temporarily used to provide medical care.
- A victory for Trinity Lutheran means that religious schools could participate in state programs that provide busing to private school students. A loss for Trinity Lutheran means that states could provide busing to all private school students except those who attend religious schools.
- State programs that provide educational testing and healthcare to children in public and private institutions would be available to children in religious schools if Trinity Lutheran wins. Children at religious schools could exclusively be denied free educational testing and healthcare services if Trinity Lutheran loses.
- Funding made available for asbestos removal in older buildings that house nonprofits providing services to children would be available to religious organizations if Trinity Lutheran wins. Otherwise, children in religious facilities could alone be excluded from the benefits of a state program designed to remove this carcinogen.
- Secular textbooks are a resource that states have long provided to private schools, and students at religious schools would be eligible to receive this benefit if Trinity Lutheran wins. On the other hand, children at religious schools could alone be denied textbooks designed to teach secular subjects like economics, science, and math.
These are just a few of the practical differences that a win in the Trinity Lutheran case can make. The case is not just an obscure legal controversy that academics will be interested in and discuss. Instead, the case involves real issues that will matter for people of faith.
A few years ago, four Supreme Court justices wrote an opinion in a different case that sums up the principle at stake in Trinity Lutheran:
For centuries now, people have come to this country from every corner of the world to share in the blessing of religious freedom. Our Constitution promises that they may worship in their own way, without fear of penalty or danger, and that in itself is a momentous offering. Yet our Constitution makes a commitment still more remarkable—that however those individuals worship, they will count as full and equal American citizens. A Christian, a Jew, a Muslim (and so forth)—each stands in the same relationship with her country, with her state and local communities, and with every level and body of government. So that when each person performs the duties or seeks the benefits of citizenship, she does so not as an adherent to one or another religion, but simply as an American.
When people of faith seek the benefits of citizenship, like the scrap tire grant in Missouri or any other secular benefit, they deserve to be treated not as religious, but simply as Americans. That’s what a win in Trinity Lutheran means for you.
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