Trinity Lutheran Church v. Pauley – “Playground Spat” Could Alter Church-State Separation in America
In what could be a case with far-reaching consequences on deciding the boundaries separating church and state, the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) has filed a brief in a case being heard in the U.S Supreme Court.
The ERLC contends that the government should not discriminate against churches with respect to funding programs. Churches should be considered on similar footing as various other civic organizations.
The ERLC petition comes in the wake of an application for funds by the Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Mo. being rejected by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. The department that offers grants to qualifying organizations for the purchase of scrap tires for resurfacing playground areas has cited from the state constitution, which states, “no money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, section or denomination of religion.” The prohibition against the use of public funds in aid of any church can be traced to the Blaine Amendment, a Missouri constitutional amendment that was passed in 1875.
The church desired funds to replace the playground surface at its Child Learning Center, which caters to kids two years and up to pre-kindergarten. However, the DNR refused to accede to the request because according to them it contravenes the no-aid clause present in the Missouri constitution.
In 2013, the church filed a case alleging discrimination on religious grounds. The suit was dismissed by a district court. The dismissal was upheld by the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The court contended that the church was not entitled to receive financial aid because of the conditions laid down in the Establishment Clause. The court opined that if the state awarded the grant to one church, it would have to follow the precedent with other churches; not doing so could raise constitutional concerns.
The church has taken the matter to the Supreme Court, in its appeal the church claims that its participation in the neutrally available Playground Scrap Tire Surface Material Grant Program to help make its Learning Center playground safe cannot in any way be construed as “in aid of” the church.
Lawyers for Alliance Defending Freedom, which sides with the church, contend that the church’s exclusion from the grant program is in violation of the Equal Protection Clause, and that day-care centers run by the church should not be treated differently from those run by other organizations. The lawyers further state that the decision taken by the DNR goes against the Equal Protection Clause because it treats religion as a separate class and treats it in a different manner.
The organization, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, has voiced opposition to the claims made by ADL and has labeled their proposition that “the church has a constitutional right to taxpayer support” as “sensational”.
Alex Luchenitser, associate legal director for Americans United, has said that the fact that the Supreme Court has considered this case as worthy of its time is worrying. The organization has expressed concerns that a judgment in favor of Trinity Lutheran Church could open the floodgates for taxpayer-funded church programs, and that state constitutional restrictions could be severely compromised.
On the other hand, the ERLC has stated that the church playground being funded by taxpayers’ money cannot be construed as trying to establish religion, because the ground was used purely for secular purposes. It goes on to say that there are thousands of churches that “have an interest in not being discriminated against in government aid programs.” It claims that “Nobody need fear an established church by means of a recycled tire surface on a playground.”
The ERLC has expressed concern that the treatment meted out to the Trinity Lutheran Church is just one more example of discrimination against churches, and that it undermines the Free Exercise, Establishment and Equal Protection Clauses, which exist to shield religion from hostile actions.
It maintains that this was not about funding religious education or something that would impinge upon the separation of church and state; instead, the funds were required for ensuring the safety of children and that the church was encouraging recycling.