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Christians booted from 'safe playground,' Supremes step in

Bob Unruh

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Jan. 18, 2016

The subject of a lawsuit that started in Missouri and now is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court is scrap tires used for playgrounds.

It’s safer than gravel, and there are fewer injuries.

But the case is over a decision by the state of Missouri to exclude one particular preschool and day-care center from the state program that provides the material – because of its Christian faith.

In the most recent ruling in the case, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia vs. Pauley, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a district court’s decision that the state is justified in denying the center access to the program because it is run by a church.

Lawyers with the Alliance Defending Freedom, who represent the child center, filed a brief just before Christmas charging the state “defines neutrality as treating religious organizations worse than everyone else.”

“That is not neutrality,” they said, “but hostility to religion which violates the Free Exercise and Equal Protection Clauses.”

They contend the state should be choosing applicants “neutrally.”

“It would neutrally select scrap tire grant recipients based on merit without regard to religion,” they said. “The grant program uses funds raised from a fee on new tires paid by religious and nonreligious citizens alike. It funds only neutral materials – safe rubber playground surfaces. The criteria used to select grant recipients is completely neutral, other than the blanket exclusion of churches, including factors such as: (1) a description of the need for the project, (2) description of how the rubber material will be contained or supported, and (3) the poverty level of citizens in the surrounding area.”

ADF Senior Counsel David Cortman said no “state can define religious neutrality as treating religious organizations worse than everyone else.”

“That’s the primary issue that the Supreme Court will address. In this case, the state should not have excluded this preschool from the recycled-tire program simply because a church operates the school,” he said.

“Children’s safety is just as important on church-daycare playgrounds as it is on other daycare playgrounds,” said ADF Senior Counsel Erik Stanley. “Missouri and every state should understand that the U.S. Constitution prohibits religious hostility, which is what Missouri exhibited when it denied Trinity Lutheran’s scrap tire grant application. This case has huge implications for state constitutional provisions across the nation that treat religious Americans and organizations as inferiors solely because of their religious identity.”

Trinity Lutheran Church Learning Center in Columbia sought to participate in the 2012 Playground Scrap Tire Surface Material Grant Program.

The center wanted to remove and replace a large portion of the pea gravel surfacing on its playgrounds with a safer, recycled, pour-in-place rubberized product.

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources disqualified the learning center solely because Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Missouri, Inc., operates it. It cited a state constitutional limit on providing state assistance to churches.

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