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ADF deflates Missouri’s arguments favoring religious discrimination in playground scrap tire program

State officials unlawfully exclude Christian learning center from children’s safety program
Should the Supreme Court Prioritize the Safety of Non-Religious Preschoolers over Religious Ones?

WASHINGTON – Alliance Defending Freedom filed a brief Friday with the U.S. Supreme Court that answers arguments the state of Missouri has made in favor of religious discrimination in what is supposed to be a religion-neutral state program. ADF attorneys, who represent a Christian pre-school and daycare center, argue that the high court should reverse a lower court decision that allowed the state to exclude the center from the program, which provides recycled tires to surface children’s playgrounds.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit upheld a district court’s decision in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Pauley that ruled the state was justified in denying the center because a church runs it. This month, 10 states filed a brief with the Supreme Court arguing that the high court should grant the ADF petition and reverse that ruling.

“Children’s safety is no less important on church daycare playgrounds than it is on other daycare playgrounds,” said ADF Senior Counsel Erik Stanley. “Missouri should understand that the U.S. Constitution prohibits anti-religious bias, which is what the state exhibited when it denied Trinity Lutheran’s scrap tire grant application.”

“No state can define neutrality as treating religious organizations worse than everyone else,” added ADF Senior Counsel David Cortman. “That isn’t neutrality; it’s a hostility to religion that violates the First Amendment. The state cannot exclude this preschool from the program simply because a church operates the school.”

Trinity Lutheran Church Learning Center in Columbia sought to participate in the 2012 Playground Scrap Tire Surface Material Grant Program. The center wished to remove and replace a large portion of the pea gravel surfacing on its playgrounds with a safer, recycled, pour-in-place rubberized product. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources disqualified the learning center solely because Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Missouri, Inc., operates it. The department pointed to a section of the state constitution that prohibits government aid to religion.

The brief ADF filed with the Supreme Court Friday explains that “the scrap tire program involves selection by merit alone based on completely secular and neutral criteria…. The truth is that Trinity Lutheran ranked higher on all secular criteria than the vast majority of other applicants. That is why the State scored its application fifth out of forty-four submissions in a year in which the State awarded fourteen grants…. Critically, it is uncontested here that Trinity Lutheran would have received a grant but for the fact that it is a church.”

The brief also explains that the state “also wrongly asserts that awarding Trinity Lutheran a grant would benefit only those children who attend the church’s programs…. This is untrue as children from the surrounding community regularly play on the church’s playground…. And the DNR [Department of Natural Resources] scored Trinity Lutheran’s application near the top of the list of applicants because of the high level of poverty in the surrounding community…. But even if it were true, children who attend the church’s programs are no less worthy of protection than children who attend a secular program.”

Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.

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David Cortman
David A. Cortman
Senior Counsel, Vice President of U.S. Litigation
David A. Cortman serves as senior counsel and vice president of U.S. litigation with Alliance Defending Freedom.