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Supremes side with preschool in major church-state decision

The U.S. Supreme Court

The state of Missouri violated the First Amendment by refusing to allow a child care center to participate in a state-funded playground program solely because of its church affiliation, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 7-2 decision released Monday.

“The [Missouri] department’s policy violated the rights of Trinity Lutheran under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment by denying the church an otherwise available public benefit on account of its religious status,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts regarding the case brought by Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia.

The church had applied for a benefit that was routinely available to early learning centers in the state but was rejected by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources only because of its faith affiliation.

The Supreme Court said on Monday: “This court has repeatedly confirmed that denying a generally available benefit solely on account of religious identity imposes a penalty on the free exercise of religion. … The department’s policy expressly discriminates against otherwise eligible recipients by disqualifying them from a public benefit solely because of their religious character. … The department’s policy puts Trinity Lutheran to a choice: It may participate in an otherwise available benefit program or remain a religious institution. When the state conditions a benefit in this way, [precedent] says plainly that the state has imposed a penalty on the free exercise of religion that must withstand the most exacting scrutiny.”

A variety of concurring opinions also were filed, and only Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Ginsburg dissented. They would have allowed the state to continue its discrimination against the learning center solely because of its relationship to the church.

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During oral arguments, several justices appeared to be swinging toward the church. Annette Kiehne, the center’s director, stated after the arguments that she was grateful the issue was heard.

“For six-and-a-half years, I’ve had the privilege of working with the boys and girls who attend our school … with the parents who entrust those children to our care … and with the teachers who share my commitment to providing a safe, joyful, rewarding learning experience for these children and their families. We have a wonderful job,” she said.

Kiehne explained the premise of the case: “Here is something you learn very quickly, working with children: A kid is a kid. Playground time, for a child, is about play. And play should be safe; safety shouldn’t hinge on whether a child is religious or they are playing on a playground at a religious school or at a secular or public institution.

“This is about working together to help keep our kids safe when they play – wherever they play. The safety of all children should matter to all of us. Most of the children who come to our preschool are from families who don’t go to our church. And a lot of children who play on our playground are from the surrounding neighborhood; they come with their families in the evening and on weekends.”

She explained her group was not asking for “special treatment,” just to “not be treated worse than everyone else.”

“Whether you are a Jewish, Muslim or Christian kid, or not religious at all, when you fall down on a playground, it hurts just as much at a religious preschool as it does at a non-religious one.”

Several dozen states currently bar public dollars from going to religious institutions under any circumstances. Those policies may now have to be revised based on Monday’s decision that the state of Missouri cannot disallow the school’s participation in its program only because of its religious affiliation.

Trinity was one of dozens of applications for funding in 2012 under a program that resurfaces playgrounds with rubber from scrap tires.

The state ranked Trinity fifth on the list of 44 applicants, but refused it permission to participate.

The arguments and the case appeared not to be affected by Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens’ decision in April to reverse the policy at the center of the case, which denied a church preschool access to a state safety program because of its religious affiliation.

Cortman at that time 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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WND reported last year when the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a district court’s decision that the state was justified in denying the center access to the program because it is run by a church.

Alliance Defending Freedom lawyers said the decision amounted to “hostility to religion, which violates the Free Exercise and Equal Protection Clauses.”

Roberts wrote that the center had been independent but merged with Trinity Lutheran in 1985.

“The center admits students of any religion, and enrollment stands at about 90 children ranging from age two to five,” he wrote.

“The center includes a playground that is equipped with the basic playground essentials: slides, swings, jungle gyms, monkey bars, and sandboxes. Almost the entire surface beneath and surrounding the play equipment is coarse pea gravel. Youngsters, of course, often fall on the playground … and when they do, the gravel can be unforgiving.”

ADF Senior Counsel David Cortman said after the ruling: “The government should treat children’s safety at religious schools the same as it does at nonreligious schools. The Supreme Court’s decision today affirms that commonsense principle and the larger truth that government isn’t being neutral when it treats religious organizations worse than everyone else.”

He continued: “Equal treatment of a religious organization in a program that provides only secular benefits, like a partial reimbursement grant for playground surfacing, isn’t a government endorsement of religion. As the Supreme Court rightly found, unequal treatment that singles out a preschool for exclusion from such a program simply because a church runs the school is clearly unconstitutional.”

Penny Nance, chief of Concerned Women for America, said: “The Supreme Court has always made clear that the First Amendment in no way requires the state’s hostility towards religion, and, in this case, Missouri’s own attorney admitted they were being overly cautious by discriminating against this school. They admitted they would not violate the constitution by giving the money to them.

“Religious institutions, like schools, hospitals, and shelters, should be encouraged in their benevolent work. Our society has benefited from their selfless commitment to help communities since our country’s founding, and the insistence of some in our society that we push them out of the public square because their love of neighbor comes from their love of God is ridiculous.”

The trial court had dismissed the lawsuit against the state, and the appeals court agreed.

But Roberts wrote: “The department’s policy expressly discriminates against otherwise eligible recipients by disqualifying them from a public benefit solely because of their religious character. … Such a policy imposes a penalty on the free exercise of religion.”

Ginsburg and Sotomayor joined in a dissent that claimed the ruling now “requires the government to provide public funds directly to a church.”

They contended the state’s discrimination against a preschool was consistent with the Establishment clause, which bars Congress from establishing a religion.

“The Evidence Bible” is now available and includes, besides the King James version, dozens of articles expanding answers to questions such as why is there suffering, explanations about what Muslims believe and scientific facts written millennia before man discovered them.