Playground fight ends up in ... Supreme Court
By: BOB UNRUH
A playground fight that has gone all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court - arguments are scheduled Wednesday with new Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch on duty for the first time - has developed a new wrinkle.
Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens has reversed the policy at the center of the case, which denied a church preschool access to a state safety program because of its religious affiliation.
While the new development doesn't impact the court case directly, since the policy was finalized by the state before Greitens was in office, lawyers with the Alliance Defending Freedom, who are representing Trinity Lutheran Church, are praising it.
"The safety of all children matters, whether they attend a religious school or a nonreligious school," said ADF Senior Counsel David Cortman.
Trinity Lutheran Church Learning Center in Columbia, Missouri, 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 operates it. It cited a state constitutional limit on providing state assistance to churches.
Cortman asserted the denial on the basis of religious status is a direct violation of the U.S. Constitution and Supreme Court precedent."
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Cortman noted the new directive "doesn't resolve the discriminatory actions that were taken against Trinity Lutheran's preschool and the attempt to deny Trinity Lutheran its constitutionally protected freedom to participate equally in society."
"As people across the nation celebrate Holy Week and Passover, Alliance Defending Freedom looks forward to advocating for the equal treatment of all Americans of faith at the Supreme Court next week," he said.
Greitens said: "Before we came into office, government bureaucrats were under orders to deny grants to people of faith who wanted to do things like make community playgrounds for kids. ... That's just wrong. ... We have hundreds of outstanding religious organizations all over the state of Missouri who are doing great work on behalf of kids and families every single day. We should be encouraging that work. So, today we are changing that prejudiced policy."
Mike Hoey of the Missouri Catholic Conference said the "education and safety of our children should be considered foremost in these grant programs, not the type of school the children attend."
Support also came from John Yeats of the Missouri Baptist Convention, who said the governor understands what the Founding Fathers understood, that "faith is an integral part of out national identity."
He said the safety of children is common ground for all sides to stand on.
"Like all Missourians, we want better and safer schools for our children," said Daniel Lefton of Epstein Hebrew Academy, "Through the implementation of this policy, the governor is making that happen."
Cortman said in a statement posted on the ADF site that the Constitution never requires government to prevent the involvement of churches in public programs.
"The 'separation of church and state' has taken on a life of its own far from its original intent," he explained. "It was never meant to treat people of faith worse than everyone else, and that's exactly what [the old Missouri program] does. Not only is it a misinterpretation, but a person's religious status should not even be in question when they are approaching the government for a neutral benefit."
He said the case poses the question of whether states "can treat people of faith or religious organizations worse than others simply because they are religious."
"A win is important in this case because the government should not be permitted to discriminate against people of faith or religious organizations simply because of their religious status. The Constitution doesn't license the government to treat them as second class citizens," he said
WND reported last year when 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.
ADF lawyers said the result of that decision was "hostility to religion which violates the Free Exercise and Equal Protection Clauses."Missouri, Playground concussions, Neil Gorsuch, Trinity Lutheran School, Equal Access