A city government tells a local synagogue that they can't hook up to the sewer system, and refuses to repair the sidewalks and maintain the street in front of the building. The police department declines to investigate a robbery at a Buddhist monastery. The city fire department refuses to respond to a fire at a church. Why? Because of a little-used state constitutional provision that prohibits “aid” to a church. The sewer system, fire department, and police department are all government entities and services, so for them to provide services for religious organizations would be the government providing impermissible “aid” to religion. Right?
Any of those situations would be utterly ridiculous. Clearly, the government would be singling out religion for discrimination.
So consider this: on the grounds of establishing religion, a lower court has refused to allow a preschool to participate in a city program to improve playground safety with recycled tire playground surfaces, because the preschool is run by a church.
It seems farfetched, I know, but this actually happened in Missouri. The state excluded Trinity Lutheran Church Child Learning Center from the 2012 Playground Scrap Tire Surface Material Grant Program simply because it's run by a church. Even though the state found that the preschool was highly qualified and ranked #5 out of a list of 44 applicants, they claimed that including Trinity Lutheran in the program would violate a state constitutional provision that prohibits money “in aid of any church, sect or denomination of religion.”
There are a few problems with this reasoning, and thankfully, the Supreme Court will hear Trinity Lutheran's case when ADF argues before the court on its behalf on April 19:
Providing playground materials promoting children's safety does not impermissibly “aid” religion.
Including a religious preschool in a neutral, secular state program along with everyone else doesn't amount to improper “aid” to a church.
The U.S. Constitution prohibits religious discrimination.
Saying everyone but churches can participate in a state program is blatant religious discrimination. The Constitution protects the rights of religious people to exercise their religion and not be punished for it. Just because these kids attend a preschool run by a church doesn't mean their safety on the playground is less important than that of students who do not attend religious schools.
“As far as I know . . . the Lutheran kids and the neighbors around there, their kids, bruise just as easily as kids going to secular daycare centers . . . The lower courts basically said, under current Supreme Court precedent, the State of Missouri is allowed to say everybody gets the eligibility for these rubber grants except the churches.” said ADF Senior Counsel Jordan Lorence.
Thankfully, the United States Supreme Court will hear the case. And for good reason.
“No state can define religious neutrality as treating religious organizations worse than everyone else,” said David Cortman, ADF senior legal counsel representing the church. “That isn’t neutrality; it’s a hostility to religion that violates the First Amendment.”
“Missouri and every state should understand that the U.S. Constitution prohibits religious hostility, which is what Missouri exhibited when it denied Trinity Lutheran’s scrap tire grant application,” said Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel representing Trinity Lutheran, “This case has huge implications for state constitutional provisions across the nation that treat religious Americans and organizations as inferiors solely because of their religious identity.”
“We hope the Supreme Court will rule in favor of playground equality,” added Jordan Lorence.
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