Supreme Court To Decide If State Can Exclude Religious Groups From Programs

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Casey Harper Contributor
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The Supreme Court has agreed to take up a case deciding whether states can prohibit churches and religious groups from participating in state programs simply because they are religious.

The case, which the Supreme Court recently announced their intent to take up, centers around a Christian preschool run by Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Mo. The school applied to participate in a state program that gives recycled tires as a soft and safe bedding for school playgrounds.

But the state denied their request, saying government funds could not aid a religious organization. The church, though, says the state has allowed 15 other religious day cares to participate and that they are victims of discrimination.

The church filed suit in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Pauley, a case that will now be heard by the Supreme Court. At first, a judge ruled in favor of the state, but the appellate court was split.

“No state can define religious neutrality as treating religious organizations worse than everyone else,” David Cortman, senior counsel of Alliance Defending Freedom, the Christian legal group representing the school, said in a statement. “That isn’t neutrality; it’s a hostility to religion that violates the First Amendment. That’s the primary issue that the Supreme Court will address. In this case, the state should not have excluded this preschool from the recycled tire program simply because a church operates the school.”

The 2012 Playground Scrap Tire Surface Material Grant Program gives recycled tires to playgrounds as a safe, cheap way to help out schools. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources denied the school’s request to participate in the program on the grounds that the government could not fund religion.

“Children’s safety is just as important on church daycare playgrounds as it is on other daycare playgrounds,” ADF Senior Counsel Erik Stanley said in a statement. “Missouri and every state should understand that the U.S. Constitution prohibits religious hostility, which is what Missouri exhibited when it denied Trinity Lutheran’s scrap tire grant application. This case has huge implications for state constitutional provisions across the nation that treat religious Americans and organizations as inferiors solely because of their religious identity.”

The Missouri Constitution states:

“No money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect or denomination of religion….and that no preference shall be given to nor any discrimination made against any church, sect or creed of religion, or any form of religious faith or worship.”

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster pointed to this portion of the Constitution as a clear prohibition. He wrote that it is “not whether a state can exclude churches and other religious institutions from a program that otherwise provides benefits to everyone. Rather, it is whether states are required by the U.S. Constitution to violate their own constitutions and choose a church to receive a grant when that means turning down nonchurch applicants.”

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