By Aaron Earls
The potential for scraped knees led to a major victory for religious liberty at the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday.
With a 7-2 decision in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, the court ruled that grants available to nonprofits for playground improvements could not be denied to a school playground owned by a church.
In his opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts argued that while the state blocking Trinity Lutheran from obtaining the playground resurfacing grants did not have serious consequences on the surface, its exclusion “from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, solely because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution all the same, and cannot stand.”
Religious liberty advocates praised the ruling.
“Equal treatment of a religious organization in a program that provides only secular benefits, like a partial reimbursement grant for playground surfacing, isn’t a government endorsement of religion,” Alliance Defending Freedom senior counsel David Cortman said.
“As the Supreme Court rightly found, unequal treatment that singles out a preschool for exclusion from such a program simply because a church runs the school is clearly unconstitutional.”
“The Court’s decision is good for kids and good for religious liberty,” said Hannah Smith, senior counsel at Becket, a nonprofit religious liberty law firm that filed a friend-of-the-court brief on the school’s behalf.
“Trinity Lutheran was simply asking that the government play fair, treat churches equally, and help the preschool make its playground safer for children. This decision does just that.”
The case began in 2012 when Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Missouri, along with several other nonprofit organizations, applied for state grants to purchase recycled tire rubber. The church planned to use the rubber to resurface the playground of its school.
Although the state’s department of natural resources judged Trinity to be one of the five applicants most deserving of the grant, it ruled Trinity ineligible because the state constitution says, “no money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect or denomination of religion.”
The church sued and argued its being barred from participating in the program violated the U.S. Constitution. On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed.
Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said the ruling was good not only for churches and people of faith “but for all who believe American citizens should be treated equally by their government.”
Others, like the Freedom From Religion Foundation, disagree. In a press release following the ruling, the FFRF said, “The U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision today that could inflict incalculable damage upon the constitutional wall of separation between state and church.”
Moore and FFRF agree about one thing — the lasting ramifications of this ruling.
“This case will have profound implications for years to come,” said Moore. “The court got this one right, and so we should be thankful to God for that.”
AARON EARLS (Aaron.Earls@Lifeway.com) is online editor of Facts & Trends.