Sunday, January 31, 2016

Trinity Lutheran Church Fighting for a Safer Playground

The Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia in Missouri runs a preschool and daycare program that hopes to replace pea gravel on their playground with recycled material, a safer alternative. In 2012 when the Church applied for a grant in order to fund this exchange, the Missouri Department of Natural resources refused their request, asserting that the use of state funds on playground equipment at Trinity was a violation of the First Amendment because it would be an establishment of religion. 

The Trinity Church sued, claiming the decision violates the First Amendment. Senior Counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom eloquently stated that, “No state can define religious neutrality as treating religious organizations worse than everyone else,” because a secular school would’ve been approved for the grant. There needs to be neutrality when enforcing policies that would treat religious and secular schools equally and provide the same incentives, but it’s evident that religious schools are discriminated in this case.

The 8th Circuit Court agreed with Missouri Department of Natural Resources stating that providing funding for the Church would be “an establishment of religion.” The court illustrated the complexity of the case stating, “It is apparent that Trinity Church seeks an unprecedented ruling–that a state constitution violates the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause if it bars the grant of public funds to a church. … In our view, only the Supreme Court can make that leap.” The Supreme Court has decided to take on this case, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia Inc. v. Pauley, and a decision will be made by the end of June.

 The question at hand is if a church has the right to receive funding from the government for a non-church related function (i.e. preschool)? The Trinity Lutheran Church asked for money for a secular purpose of improving playground safety, so is it an unconstitutional establishment of religion if the government provided a grant to the Trinity Church?

The main argument against the court ruling, advocating for the Trinity Church to receive the government grant for a safer playground, is that the money that Trinity Church receives is to improve playground safety, not to preach Lutheranism. Trinity Church applied for this grant to keep the children safe. The argument against this, however, is that funding the Church to build a safer playground is indirectly creating an establishment of religion because the money that the Lutheran Church would have used to pay for the playground could instead be used to advance the Lutheran Church.  Another critical point in favor of the church is that if the government gave money to a church for a secular cause, it would be able to monitor the church's funds that the government contributed to, allowing them to avoid an entanglement between religion and state.

On the other hand, the court reasonably justified their decision to not provide Trinity Church the grant. Giving money to the church, even for a preschool, is acknowledging the Lutheran Church because it is likely that Lutheran values are taught at the preschool. In this case, the government has given money to help the Trinity Church advocate for Lutheranism.

The more consequential reason that the court’s ruling is warranted is that giving money to the Trinity Church for a secular cause would allow any religious group to create secular division to receive grants from the government, Most religions would probably then create secular divisions within their church to apply for government grants to gain this economic advantage. As a result, there probably would not be enough taxpayer money for all the religious institutions and the issues that taxpayer money is used for currently, which Daniel Mach, director of Program on Freedom of Religion Belief for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), recognizes when he claims that, “State taxpayer shouldn’t be forced to subsidize religious activities and institutions.”

This raises the most critical aspect of the case, which is that the Trinity Lutheran Church is a private institution. Only public institutions should receive money from the government because private institutions get their own funding, while the only funding public schools get is from the government. Churches receive donations and get tax exemptions. It is unfair to public institutions that the Trinity Church would be able to get a grant even though it already receives tax exemptions and is primarily funded through donations, which is the main reason why the court made the right decision refusing the to give the grant to the Trinity Lutheran Church. 


Sarah A said...

I'm not sure I agree here. My impression of the the case is not that playground will be redone without the funding. In fact, it sounds like the church has not intention of fixing the playground if it does not get funding from this grant. Since nothing states that the Lutheran church has any intention to fix the playground with personal funds, they do not gain any benefit financially from whether or not they get the grant. Additionally, because of the secular nature of the playground and the grant, I think calling the safety of children of all religions who use the playground establishment is a little far fetched. Did the safety of children recently become religious? I would argue that the playground, though on church property, is a secular fixture in the community that deserves to be funded by the grant.

Matthew L. said...

Although I agree with your statement regarding how this could be a program that would support religion, I think a key factor to this article may be missing. Although I am not saying that you missed it, but possibly that the courts did not mention it. My main question would be in wondering if the playground is a public space. If the space is accessible for all of the public, the way secular playgrounds are, this case would completely change. Meanwhile, as this article leads the readers to believe, the playground appears to be on private property; and therefore, makes the playground accessible to only those who are a part of this faith and thus helping to advance this religion, and not the general public.

Natalie K. said...

Although I agree with David Cortman’s statement, “No one can define religious neutrality as treating religious organizations worse than everyone else,” the practice of remaining religiously neutral by treating all religious and secular organizations the same creates a larger problem at hand- an economic one. If the government provides a grant to the Trinity Church, it must do so to all other religious and nonreligious organizations that reasonably ask for one, to remain religiously neutral. Therefore, I agree with your point that there would be a shortage of taxpayer money for all the demanded grants. However, I think that this economic fact alone should end all debate on whether this case is a violation of the First Amendment or not because in reality, everyone, religious or nonreligious, will suffer if the economy suffers.

Hannah L. said...

Normally, I would be of the belief that if the government wishes to maintain a separation of church and state, it should fund equally both religious and non-religious organizations. This is the only way for the government to stay neutral when dealing with establishment of religion. This case, however, is different. The issue at hand here, at Matthew stated, is that of public versus private property. Since the church is privately funded mainly through donations from members of the church, and to my knowledge the playground is also on these church grounds, the church should not be receiving funding from the government and rather raising the money through donations just as they do for all other things.

Thomas M. said...

I sympathize with the Church for what they see as unfair reasons for not receiving a grant, but I agree with the Court's ruling. Whether or not they intended to build the playground or not if they did not receive the grant do not matter in a court decision, what matters is the fact that the Church is a private, religious institution. Also to the issue of private or public property, I would assume it would be private property, but either way, the government would be providing funds to help the cause of this religious group, even it is something as harmless as a playground.