For decades, the Supreme Court of the United States has tussled with the proper relationship between religion and government.
Later this month, the Supreme Court will again try to define this relationship in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer.
Alliance Defending Freedom is representing Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Missouri, which has served its local community for over 90 years. Like many churches, Trinity Lutheran offers a preschool program that opens enrollment to anyone in the community. And like many preschool programs, a well-loved playground sits on its grounds.
This playground is also open to everyone in the community. In fact, most of the children using the playground aren’t even members of Trinity Lutheran.
Here’s where the trouble began: Wishing to create a safer environment for the countless children that play on the gravel playground surface, Trinity Lutheran preschool applied to a state program that provides a grant for organizations who want to resurface their playgrounds with a safer, pour-in-place rubber surface.
But they were denied this reimbursement solely on the basis that the playground belongs to a religious organization.
What does the history of the Court’s dance with religion have to say about safety, the church, and state? Should the government treat some children worse than others simply because they attend a religious preschool?
That’s not what the courts have said in the past. Here are five public safety precautions and services that should be allowed for use by both religious and non-religious schools:
1. Hearing, Speech, and Psychological Services
Do you remember those annual health tests you had to take in school? The case Wolman v. Walters upheld funding to both private and public schools for these diagnostic tests. The court ruled, rightly so, that the public health and safety of each child shouldn’t be at risk simply because of where they attend school.
The case Everson v. Board of Education upheld a state program that reimburses families for the cost of children’s public transportation to schools because the aid was for a secular purpose.
3. Asbestos Removal Programs
If the government were to provide funding to remove this toxic material from schools, it would hardly be fair if it only provided this funding to public schools and not private. This is especially true since government holds both religious and non-religious schools to the same standards when it comes to inspecting and managing asbestos hazards. It’s about the children’s safety, first and foremost.
Fortunately, there is no Supreme Court case contesting the use of the fire department for private entities. Those annual fire drills in schools were not only a good excuse to breathe in the fresh air, but to ensure public safety. When the fire department answers a plea to hose down a burning building, do you think they ask whether or not the building belongs to a religious organization? Of course not.
Again, virtually no one asserts that government-run police departments should solely protect nonreligious entities. Our brave men and women in blue cannot discriminate when it comes to public safety. It is their civic duty to ensure that children are safe in the event of danger, regardless of religious affiliation.
On April 19, we’re asking the Supreme Court to play fair and uphold the public safety of children. After all, public safety is a neutral ground that should be accessible to children of all backgrounds and religions.
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