By Jesse Rice
On June 26, the Supreme Court ruled the State of Missouri cannot withhold a grant from Trinity Lutheran Church without violating the First Amendment.
In 2012, the Trinity Lutheran Church Child Learning Center applied for a state grant. The grant would allow the daycare center to replace the gravel surface under their playground with recycled rubber from old tires. In 2012, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources issued 14 grants among 44 applicants. Trinity ranked fifth out of all applicants but was denied a grant because it is a religious institution.
The director of the 2012 Scrap Tire Program based the denial on the Missouri constitution, which states no public money can be given to aid a religious institution or leader. Trinity sued, saying they were discriminated against based solely on religion. The Missouri Department argued the withholding of reimbursement was not keeping Trinity Church from exercising its religion. Trinity countered that excluding it from competing for the grants because of its religious nature was discrimination.
On June 26, the Supreme Court sided with Trinity Lutheran Church in a 7-2 majority. However, the ruling did hold a footnote stating this case only related to religious discrimination around playground resurfacing. The case did not seek to address broader forms of religious discrimination. According to the Washington Post, the footnote is not considered the opinion of the court due to only four justices supporting the specific section.
Despite that caveat, the ruling caused reactions throughout America. Maureen Ferguson, of The Catholic Association, said the ruling was “a significant victory for fairness and government neutrality toward religious institutions,” reported Fox News. David Mach, director of the ACLU’s program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, said religious freedom should protect taxpayers from funding church property, according to CNN. However, Mach recognized that the decision focused on playgrounds and did not give broad funding to religious activity.
Lancaster Bible College Assistant Professor Justin Harbin said, “Although some consider the ruling a significant first amendment victory, I recommend caution around making much of the situation. The narrow focus of the case (a grant for a new playground surface) neatly avoids messier issues that represent larger threats to personal or institutional expressions of the first amendment. A far more important discussion for the American Church relates to what avenues of cultural engagement best further the Gospel rather than mistake cultural acceptance for progress.”
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