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Playground case touches on separation of church and state

20 April 2017
Playground case touches on separation of church and state

"Now you're treating a religious organization worse than everybody else", he says.

Justice Samuel Alito mentioned several federal programs that fund safety programs for religious institutions. "As long as you're using the money for playground services, you're not disentitled from that program because you're a religious institution doing religious things", she said of the case at hand. And I would have thought that that's a pretty strong principle in our constitutional law.

That, essentially, is the question the U.S. Supreme Court will answer in the case of Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, which the high court will hear on April 19.

There is not infinite money, so not all applications will be successful: the government will invariably be giving money, directly, to some religious institutions and not others.

According to NBC News, the case concerns the Trinity Lutheran Church in Missouri, which applied five years ago for state funding to cover the gravel playgrounds in its preschool and daycare center with rubber from recycled tires. "But once they read the application and found out this preschool was run by Trinity Lutheran, they said, 'Whoa, separation of church and state". She said the state's interest had to "rise to an extremely high level" to justify excluding the church.

Three-quarters of the USA states have provisions similar to Missouri's barring funding for religious entities. Other states have similar amendments.

They said the state failed to do this because the criteria used to determine which schools receive the grants and even the grants themselves have nothing to do with religion. And Greitens' new policy is subject to challenge in the state courts from taxpayers.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer said cities routinely provide police protection for churches, send firefighters if a religious building catches fire and dispatch crossing guards at busy corners near a church school.

Sotomayor and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg voiced the most open skepticism about the church's position, with Sotomayor declaring that "the playground is part of the ministry of the church" and Ginsburg citing a landmark 1947 court decision that emphasized the separation of church and state. After all, atheist kids are just as vulnerable to injury from an unpadded playground as the religious kids.

"In essence, the church is arguing that states can't specifically exempt religious organizations from grant programs that it chooses to provide", said Steve Vladeck, CNN Supreme Court analyst and professor of law at the University of Texas School of Law. Esbeck said that the two courts interpreted the section literally, and that interpretation would stand if the Supreme Court upholds the decision.

Mittman went on to say church versus state should continue to be enforced. But what if it's schoolchildren who lose out if the court gets it wrong? But no governor has the authority to overrule the state's constitution. The church, he added later, admits it "uses the preschool to bring the Gospel to non-members". That includes a clear ban on spending public money "for support of any sectarian or denominational school", or on "any school not under the exclusive control of the officers of the public schools".

Gorsuch said relatively little during the hourlong session, weighing in only at the end to question James Layton, the lawyer defending the Missouri policy.

A total of 39 states have restrictions that either, like the Missouri provision at issue, ban state support for churches or forbid taxing their citizens in order to aid churches. Attorney General Josh Hawley recused himself from the case in January because he had filed a friend of the court brief supporting Trinity Lutheran and the office is now off of the case because it will have to defend Greitens' policy. It is likely the most important religious freedom case before the court this term, made even more significant by it being one of the first oral arguments in which newly minted Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch will participate.

There is a procedural wrinkle - that developed on the eve of arguments - that could give the justices an off-ramp to deciding the case.

Williams didn't seem to think the church's claims of religious discrimination had any legal standing.

That confuses granting money with policies that hinder religious rights, she said.

"When the government's engaging in safety benefit programs, it should want all kids to be safe".