Are Lutheran Kids Less Important? Missouri Church Charges Discrimination in Supreme Court Case

Joe Smith plays with his daughter Norah as his son Chase looks on at a playground in Winthrop Harbor, Illinois, May 9, 2014. Picture taken May 9, 2014.
Joe Smith plays with his daughter Norah as his son Chase looks on at a playground in Winthrop Harbor, Illinois, May 9, 2014. Picture taken May 9, 2014. | (Photo: REUTERS/Jim Young)

A Missouri congregation denied funds from a secular aid program centered on improving playgrounds is taking its case before the United States Supreme Court.

Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia is suing the Missouri Department of Natural Resources for not allowing them to be able to take part in an aid program meant to improve the safety of playgrounds.

The conservative legal group the Alliance Defending Freedom filed its opening brief before the highest court in the land last week on behalf of Trinity Lutheran.

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The U.S. Supreme Court is seen in Washington March 29, 2016.
The U.S. Supreme Court is seen in Washington March 29, 2016. | (Photo: REUTERS/Gary Cameron)

"Missouri's Scrap Tire Grant Program provides reimbursement for rubber safety flooring for all playgrounds that meet certain neutral criteria — except for playgrounds owned by churches and religious organizations," read the brief's introduction.

"Trinity Lutheran Church was denied participation in this recycling and child safety program solely because of who it is — a church — even though the Missouri Department of Natural Resources ("DNR") ranked its application fifth out of forty-four submitted."

The brief went on to argue that the barring of Trinity Lutheran was wrong since "religious entities in the program would equally further the state's goals of keeping tires out of Missouri's' landfills and fostering children's safety."

"A rubber playground surface accomplishes the state's purposes whether it cushions the fall of the pious or the profane," continued the brief.

"The DNR's categorical exclusion of religion in this case is unvarnished status-based discrimination that violates the Free Exercise and Equal Protection Clauses."

ADF Senior Counsel David Cortman said in a statement last week that being neutral on religious issues "doesn't mean treating religious organizations worse than everyone else."

"The state's categorical exclusion of religious daycare centers and preschools from the Scrap Tire Grant Program is discrimination based on religious status, and that violates the First Amendment," stated Cortman.

"It isn't neutral for the state to impose special burdens on non-profit organizations with a religious identity."

In 2012, Trinity Lutheran applied for a grant to modify the playground surface at the church's Learning Center, but their grant was rejected later that year.

In their rejection notice, the Learning Center was told that their grant request was not going to be fulfilled because Article I, Section 7 of the Missouri Constitution bars the "public treasury" from funding "aid of any church, section or denomination of religion."

In response to the rejection, Trinity Lutheran filed suit against DNR Director Sara Pauley in 2013. A district court ruled in favor of the DNR and a three judge panel of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals concurred.

"Trinity Church requests injunctive relief compelling Missouri to provide grants directly to churches, funding that is prohibited by a provision of the Missouri Constitution that has been a bedrock principle of state law for nearly 150 years," ruled the panel in May 2015.

"We therefore follow … the many Supreme Court of Missouri decisions concluding that Article I, § 7, of the Missouri Constitution does not conflict with the First Amendment or the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution."

In November 2015, ADF petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear their appeal, with the high court granting their petition in January.

Amicus briefs have been filed on behalf of Trinity Lutheran by multiple organizations, including the American Center for Law and Justice, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

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