In 2012, the state of Missouri started encouraging schools to use recycled tires to produce safer playground surfaces, which the state would provide at reduced costs. Trinity Lutheran Church applied for a playground resurfacing grant from the state, which would have reimbursed the church for resurfacing its playground with a safer, pour-in-place rubber surface made from recycled tires.
Trinity’s application was ranked 5th out of 44, and the state awarded 14 grants that year. But Trinity’s application was denied. Missouri said its state constitution forbids it from allowing Trinity to participate because the playground is on church property and the safer playground would equate to the establishment of a state religion.
Trinity filed a lawsuit, claiming the state’s stance was in fact an act of religious discrimination, violating the U.S. Constitution's Free Exercise and Equal Protection Clauses. Amazingly, the lower courts sided with Missouri, but now the case has found its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Last Wednesday, the Supreme Court justices—including newly confirmed Justice Neal Gorsuch—tackled the case, which could produce one of the most important religious liberty rulings in a long time.
Even liberal Justice Stephen Breyer seemed to recognize Missouri’s intellectually inconsistent position. "I'm asking," Breyer said, "does the Constitution of the United States permit a state or a city to say, 'We give everybody in this city police protection, but not churches? We give everybody fire protection, but let churches burn down?'"
As David Cortman, a lawyer representing the church pointed out, “It is not rational to categorically exclude churches from neutral and otherwise generally available public benefit programs when their objectives and practical impact are entirely secular. This religious exclusion wrongfully sends a message that some children are less worthy of protection simply because they enjoy recreation on a playground owned by a church."
Ironically, on the eve of the Supreme Court arguments, newly elected Missouri governor, Republican Eric Greitens, said his administration will reverse the decision of his predecessor and allow religious organizations to apply for and be eligible for such state grants. In response, the Supreme Court justices have asked the parties if this makes this case moot. If it does, it may all go away; but if it doesn’t, the Supreme Court may be poised to make an enormous religious liberty ruling under Justice Gorsuch’s tenure.
Please stay tuned to the National Center for Life and Liberty for updates on this important case, and thank you again for your prayerful support as we work to defend religious liberties across America.