The U.S. Supreme Court has announced that it will review a case about a Missouri Christian pre-school which was prohibited from participating in the state’s scrap tire program because it is run by a church.

“All we are asking is that we be treated the same as any other group and not be disqualified from the grant program just because we are a church,” Philip Glenn, congregation chairman of Trinity Lutheran Church, told CNA.

In January 2012, Trinity Lutheran Church Child Learning Center, which is run by Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, applied for the grant, which provides recycled tires to surface children’s playgrounds. The learning center wanted to replace a large portion of the pea gravel surfacing on its playground with a safer rubber product.

But the Missouri Department of Natural Resources Solid Waste Management Program said the school could not participate in the 2012 Playground Scrap Tire Surface Material Grant program because the state constitution prohibits government funding of religion.

“Our playground met Missouri’s safety standards but we simply wanted to improve it for our children so they can fully enjoy the playground,” said Glenn, a Missouri native who has been an active member of Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia with his wife for the past 16 years. “We never thought we would be excluded from the program because we are religious.”

In 2012, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources provided grants to 14 projects and ranked applicants according to their eligibility. The department ranked the school fifth out of 44 applicants but still chose to deny the school because it is run by a church.

“We qualified for the grant but we were denied based on religion,” said Glenn.

“They said public money can’t be given to church organizations,” he stated. “That’s not fair. It was obvious the government was discriminating against a religious organization.”

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources also claimed that if the grant was given to Trinity Lutheran Church it would benefit only those children who attend the church’s programs and would hurt more disadvantaged children.   However, Glenn argued this is not true.

“The playground is not just for children at our school but for any child in the community who wants to use it,” said Glenn. “Our church has a lot of great people and we want to help the community and share our resources.”

School officials and parents are also dismayed about being denied the grant.

“This situation is unjust since we ranked so highly and qualified for the grant,” Gail Schuster, director of Trinity Lutheran Church Child Learning Center told CNA. “All schools should be eligible for state grants. It is unfortunate. All we wanted was to upgrade our playground and have the best for our children and others who wanted to use it.”

Trinity Lutheran Child Learning Center currently has 109 pre-school children ages 2-5 that are enrolled.

Jay Manda, parent of three children currently attending the school, told CNA that “Trinity Lutheran submitted the proper paperwork and there was no clause about being excluded because of religious affiliation.”

“My kids are getting a fantastic education at the school and would have benefitted if the school had received the grant,” Manda said. “To deny the school the grant because of religious reasons is unfair and unfounded.”

In January 2013, Alliance Defending Freedom filed a lawsuit on behalf of Trinity Lutheran Church against the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. Both a district court and an appellate court sided with the natural resources department, ruling that the decision to deny program participation to the child care center was justified.

Alliance Defending Freedom disagrees.

“Rubber scrap tires do not advance religion,” ADF senior counsel Erik Stanley told CNA. “If this decision stands, it will bode poorly for churches and mean they can potentially be excluded from a variety of other programs and services.”  

“If you can categorically exclude religious groups from anything, you will be able to justify discrimination against them,” added Stanley. “And that is unconstitutional.”

Last year, 10 states filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in support of Trinity Lutheran Church. They argue that state programs that are neutral should not be allowed to discriminate against religious groups.

Stanley believes this case has garnered support from so many states because there is so much at stake.

“This case isn’t really about recycled tires,” Stanley said. “It is about whether the state can discriminate against churches and what that means for society as a whole.”

“It’s also about how churches can and should be treated. This broader principle at stake is vitally important for churches going forward.”

Glenn agreed, saying, “It’s not about the money the grant would have provided. We could have backpedaled a long time ago but chose not to.”

“It’s about the principle,” he continued. “Christian organizations are no different than other organizations. And we have the same constitutional rights.”

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