Thursday, January 28, 2016

TIREd of Unsafe Playgrounds?

The Supreme Court recently agreed to hear the case of Trinity Lutheran Church v. Pauley.  The case concerns a church from Colombia, Missouri that applied to be part of a state-funded grant program to resurface gravel playgrounds with a bouncy rubber play surface product made from tire waste.  Trinity Lutheran Church was denied entry into the program, even though its application rated highly because the Missouri constitution says, “no money shall be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect or denomination of religion”.  The program administrators cited this and the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution as the main reasons for denying the grant.  Trinity Lutheran Church appealed this decision, claiming that the state could not deny them entry into the program based on religion.  The decision was upheld by two lower courts, followed by a split in the Missouri Supreme Court.  Now the Supreme Court of the United States has agreed to hear the case.  

There are a couple of major issues being debated here.  The first is whether or not denying Trinity Lutheran Church the grant because it is a religious institution infringes on religious freedom.  The second deals with whether or not the federal government can force the state of Missouri to act against its state constitution.  The third, and I would argue most practically important, is whether using government money to resurface a church’s playground is advancing a particular religion or serving a secular purpose.  

In terms of the religious freedom argument, I would side with Trinity Lutheran Church in this case.  The playground is located on church property, but is open to the public and children of all religious affiliations can, and do, play there.  The current surface of the playground is made of pea gravel, the edges of which can be sharp and cut children.  Pea gravel is also significantly less effective at cushioning falls than a rubber surface would be.  The children in the community surrounding the playground would be much safer if the area was resurfaced.  Refurbishing the playground surface would not specifically further one religion over another, as playground equipment does not carry an overtly religious message.  As long as Trinity Lutheran Church’s proposal merited the grant, it should not have been denied on religious grounds.  

The courts that decided in favor of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources cited the decision in Locke v. Davey, where the court decided that the state of Washington did not have to grant scholarship money to a theology student.  I am not  sure that this precedent is as applicable as the court would like it to be here.  I would argue that funding a student’s religious education is different than helping a church to make its pubic playground safer.  In this case, state funding would specifically be used to cover the costs of purchasing and installing the surface; the funds could not legally be used for any other purpose.  Trinity Church’s application was originally ranked 5th out of 44 applicants for the grant.  

So far in class we have talked a lot about the establishment clause and religious freedom on a federal level, but we have not discussed how this issue plays out in the states.  Trinity Lutheran Church’s application to a state program was denied based on the wording of the state constitution. SCOTUS has jurisdiction to hear the case because the highest state court was split and had a different opinion than the lower courts, and now it can choose exactly what it wants to rule on.  One option is to give an opinion clarifying whether federal law trumps state law here.  Another option, would be to decide, as I did above, that resurfacing a playground is not akin to establishing or aiding one religion over another.  This would mean that Trinity Lutheran Church was unconstitutionally denied the grant according to both the Missouri and U.S. Constitutions.  The Court could also choose to hand down a ruling that deals with both of these issues.  

So far, ten states, lead by Nevada, have signed on to an amicus brief backing the church.  This brief claims that resurfacing the playground with a safer surface does not serve any religious purpose.  The Missouri Department of Natural Resources responded, arguing that the issue at stake is whether or not the federal government can overrule the states, not whether or not discrimination occurred.  A writ of certiorari was granted January 15, 2016 in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Pauley and oral arguments have not yet been scheduled. 

Thoughts, Comments, Concerns? 


Rebecca J said...

I think Maddie makes a very interesting point regarding the courts' use of the Locke v. Davey decision to help justify denying Trinity Church's application. I agree with her idea that these two cases are crucially different because of the way they interact with the idea of advancing a certain religion. In the Locke v. Davey decision, there is more ground to claim that a scholarship for a theology student could constitute an establishment of religion. The education that the student would receive with the scholarship could arguably be used to advance religious ideas. Therefore, support from the state of Washington could be considered an establishment of religion. On the other hand, in no way does paying for new material on the Church's playground help to advance religious ideas. As Maddie mentions, there is no limitation on who can use the playground and the playground itself does not function to force or even encourage people to practice a certain religion. I think this case is much more similar to the case we discussed in class regarding the tax incentives being given to the Noah's Ark tourist attraction in Kentucky. Both the ark and the playground have secular purposes and do not prohibit people of other religions from using them. In this sense, I would argue that denying Trinity Church's entry because of its religion may actually violate the Church's protection under the First Amendment.

Samantha Woolford said...

I agree with Maddie that the denial of the playground funding to Trinity Church violated their rights given to them under the First Amendment. The playground is a place where everyone in the community is welcome, not a place of worship or a place where Christianity teachings would be professed. Therefore, there is no advancing of a particular religion. It is simply advancing the community by creating a safer environment for children to play.

Caroline S. said...

I think that Maddie did a great job laying out the three distinct problems this case holds. I agree that the third "prong" to this argument- the question of weather allowing the Lutheran Trinity Church to use a state funded grant program to resurface the playground is advancing a particular religion or serving a secular purpose. The Establishment clause is difficult to address because it can be interpreted in a variety of ways. I think that the playground serves an extremely secular purpose because children of all faiths use the playground every day. I think that this fund does not "establish" any particular religion because it is not barring any other religious organization from applying for a grant either and it does not bar anyone from utilizing the space. Rebecca makes a good point that the court's citation of Locke v. Davey is a little out of place as a justification. Although both of these cases involve state funds- Locke v. Davey is talking about a religious education, whereas the purpose of this playground seems to be quite secular. This is an incredibly interesting case and it will be interesting to see how the Supreme Court decides to rule.

Sedona Boyatzis said...

Maddie did a great job at clearly outlining the various elements of this argument and the difficulties brought upon by this case. I agree with her that providing this grant to the church would in no way advance the Lutheran religion because the money would be allotted solely to the improvement of the playground, where anyone of any religious background is free to play. This point is only difficult because although this playground is accessible to all, it is still associated with the Lutheran Church and is on its property. This may bring about hesitancy from attendees of other religions, but does not give cause to deny the church of its right to improve its somewhat dangerous playground flooring that the betterment of which could potentially allow people of differing religions to join together simultaneously in one place.

Jim R said...

After looking through the precedent in Locke v. Davie case and this current case, I believe the Supreme Court should rule in favor of Trinity Lutherian Church.

Locke v. Davey's scope is applied to scholarships in a voucher-like format for Americans who wish to embark in post-secondary education. The target audience for this project would be mostly aimed at children who have a longer time for their families and themselves to decide their future career paths.

Trinity voluntarily decided to be a part of the statewide initiative to recycle tires. This program seeks to "protect and improve the environment by developing a scrap tire management system that creates economic incentives for the proper management of scrap tires in Missouri. We also strive to create a level playing field for all industry members through permitting, inspection and enforcement efforts." (Missouri Scrap Tire) Their enrollment in the program helps to protect people from unwanted species such as "mosquitoes, snakes and other vermin" which can be carriers for West Nile and other viruses. (Missouri Scrap Tire) By creating an application, the Trinity Lutheran Church is sharing the goals of promoting a healthier future with Missouri.

The application submitted by Trinity was also among the top candidates. By promising a level playing field, the "Show Me State" cannot deny the application among equally legitimate candidates based on whether the property is tied to a religious community.

As stated in previous comments, the playground serves a community purpose for the citizens of Columbia, Missouri. The playground has the equivalence of building a new bridge, fire station, police station, hospital, or library; to serve the community first with no favoritism towards any particular religious background. Therefore, it should be deemed a civic project and funding can be drawn from Missouri's pork barrel to complete the project despite the fact Missouri's state constitution prohibits assisting religious groups with public funds. If the church were to try to renovate the building or the classrooms where their students were being taught, then the State of Missouri could be argue that the grant serves a limited purpose.

"Scrap Tire and Illegal Dumping Unit - General Information." Missouri Department of Natural Resources. Web. 02 Feb. 2016.

"Locke v. Davey." Oyez. Chicago-Kent College of Law at Illinois Tech, n.d. Feb 2, 2016.