The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia — affirming that the state of Missouri discriminated against it by denying it a playground resurfacing grant — goes far beyond safer slides and jungle gyms. The decision reaffirms that religious people should not be treated as second-class citizens and that religious people and organizations enjoy the ability to fully participate in the life of the community.
As the court noted, “Trinity Lutheran is a member of the community too, and the State’s decision to exclude it for purposes of this public program must withstand the strictest of scrutiny.”
Specifically, the court reaffirmed the longstanding proposition that a state cannot exclude an organization from participating in a benefit program that has nothing to do with religion — like playground resurfacing grants, police protection, and water and sewage services — solely because the organization itself happens to be religious.
The case began in 2012 when Trinity Lutheran Church and its preschool, the Learning Center, learned of Missouri’s Scrap Tire Grant Reimbursement program. The program is designed to remove scrap tires from Missouri’s landfills and turn them into beneficial products — in this case, a rubberized playground surface to protect neighborhood children. The state set up a partial reimbursement grant program that encouraged all nonprofits to apply and then judged the applicants according to 16 neutral criteria.
The state scored Trinity Lutheran’s application fifth out of 44 received. The department in charge of the program awarded 14 grants that year, but instead of getting a grant, Trinity Lutheran received a letter denying its application. The letter pointed to a state constitutional provision prohibiting any aid to a religious organization.
A less-qualified applicant received the grant because Missouri wanted to exclude religious organizations from a program that had no connection to religion and would never result in entanglement of the government with religion. After all, we’re talking about a rubber playground surface to protect children from injury.
Missouri argued at the high court that, even though its program wouldn’t violate the federal Establishment Clause, it was still allowed to exclude Trinity Lutheran to avoid coming anywhere close to the line. That was what its constitutional provision preventing aid to religion was about, it said: preventing someone somewhere from thinking that the state was “aiding” religion. In essence, the state argued that it had to treat Trinity Lutheran worse than everyone else in order to be neutral toward religion, and that just doesn’t make sense.
Under that logic, a state could exclude a mosque from an asbestos removal program, a synagogue from a city project to fix cracked public sidewalks, or a church from fire protection. After all, couldn’t these be perceived as “aid” to religion? Missouri tried to build such a high wall between church and state that it walled off the free exercise rights of its citizens to participate fully in the life of the community and not be singled out and mistreated solely because of their religious identity.
The Supreme Court was on solid ground to rule in favor of Trinity Lutheran and against Missouri’s religious status discrimination. It was a resounding victory for the free exercise of religion because the decision will not just stay on the playgrounds of Missouri. It will be used to allow people of faith to be treated fairly all across the country.
In a day of increasing religious intolerance — and yes, even violence — the Supreme Court’s decision reaches back to the commitment to religious liberty America was founded upon and re-emphasizes it for this generation. The Trinity Lutheran case stands as a reminder that we are all citizens of one country regardless of our religious identity or status, and we deserve to be treated equally, not discriminated against by the government because of our religion. The Supreme Court’s decision simply echoed what we tell children on the playground: Play fair.
Erik Stanley is senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, which represents Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia.