Do Playgrounds Have a Religion?

Do Playgrounds Have a Religion?

by Diane Robertson

Another aspect of the doctrine of separation of Church and State is on trial at the Supreme Court, today, April 19, 2017. This is an important case for families because it affects government interaction with both education and religion. Some say school choice is at stake and others say religious freedom is at stake.

The Case
Trinity Lutheran Church v. Pauley began in 2012 when Trinity Lutheran Church was denied a Missouri State funded grant for rubberizing playground surfaces for the Church run daycare and pre-school.

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources had 14 grants to give to preschools and daycares in the state to make their playgrounds safer. Trinity Lutheran ranked 5th out of 44 submissions, but was denied the grant because of a provision in the Missouri state constitution—The Blaine Amendment—that bars the state from providing funds to religious entities. Trinity Lutheran sued in federal district court, arguing that its exclusion was a violation of free-exercise and equal-protection rights. Trinity Lutheran lost and appealed until it reached the Supreme Court.

National Review describes the Blaine Amendment as follows:

“The Blaine amendment was added to many state constitutions in the late 1800s as part of the anti-Catholic response to the nation’s then-fledgling parochial-school system. These provisions were named after Speaker of the House James G. Blaine, who in 1875 proposed an amendment to the U.S. Constitution stipulating that “no money raised by taxation in any State for the support of public schools . . . shall ever be under the control of any religious sect.” Though Blaine’s proposal narrowly failed, falling short of the necessary two-thirds vote in the Senate by only four votes, his imitators were more successful in the states. Eventually, as many as 40 states had adopted Blaine amendments or passed similar laws. Today, Blaine amendments are still on the books in some 37 states.”

Three sitting Supreme Court Justices, Justice Clarence Thomas, Justice Anthony Kennedy, and Justice Stephen Breyer have already noted the discriminatory nature of Blaine amendments.

Who’s Really Paying
The grant for rubber tire playground turf comes through a tax funded program financed through a tire tax. The people who run the preschool and the families that use their playground, pay into the fund for the tire grants with every tire purchased. The state is essentially saying that parents and children choosing religious preschools can’t benefit from this tax. The Trinity Lutheran Preschool happens to be regarded as one of the premier schools in the Columbia area. In Fact, the school is so well respected that, of the 82 children enrolled last summer, only four came from church families. The Trinity Lutheran Playground is also open to the public after school hours at which times it essentially functions as a public park.

Why it Matters
Real neutrality with how the government interacts with places of faith and school choice are at stake in this case. Concerning neutrality, Alan Sears, founder of Alliance Defending Freedom argues the case this way:

“The government shouldn’t give a school a grant it hasn’t earned simply because it’s church-owned—but neither should it withhold that same grant when the school has earned it, simply because the school is owned by a church.”

Concerning school choice, many opponents of voucher programs, tax-credit scholarships, and education-savings accounts use Blaine amendment doctrine to argue against these programs. It’s a way to divert all public education money away from often better religious schools.

Where the Rubber Hits the Road
While government funding for public programs should not discriminate among those entities offering the programs, many privately funded entities do not want government funding. Often government funding comes with strings attached. For example, home school families may not want to take tax money for education because they do not want government to have a say in their school curriculum. Can the government offer educational grants without dictating exactly what that education has to be?

The Supreme Court hears the arguments today. A decision on the case will be made before the summer recess at the end of June.

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