Supremes appear to swing on church playgrounds
Justices on the U.S. Supreme Court appeared Wednesday to be swinging toward fairness for kids on playgrounds in a case over a state program that refused to provide recycled rubber surfaces for a playground solely because it was owned by a church.
The court heard oral arguments in the case brought against the state’s discriminatory program by Child Learning Center at Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Missouri.
Annette Kiehne, the center’s director, stated after the Supreme Court’s oral arguments that she’s grateful the issue is being 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 said the objective of the case is to overturn a state restriction that provides grants for playground surface materials for some playgrounds but not others, if they happen to be owned by a church.
“We aren’t asking for special treatment. We are just asking 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. We trust and pray that the Supreme Court will consider that carefully and rule in favor of the safety of children everywhere.”
Bloomberg reported the church’s position appeared to be earning support from both sides of the ideological spectrum on the court.
Elena Kagan, a far-left advocate who was nominated by Barack Obama, said, “This is a clear burden on a constitutional right,” pointing out that for such a restriction to survive, the state’s interest must be “extremely high.”
Liberal Associate Justice Stephen Breyer also voiced skepticism about the Missouri practice.
And the newest justice, Neil Gorsuch, expected to be on the conservative side in most issues, pointed out the state was “moving” the constitutional line by saying it would provide fire and police protection to churches but would exclude them from participating in the state program.
There are several dozen states that currently bar public dollars from going to religious institutions.
The case is expected to impact the national dispute over whether state education funds can go to school voucher programs that include religious schools.
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 an Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens’ decision Friday 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.
The Alliance Defending Freedom, which is representing Trinity Lutheran Church, praised his decision.
“The safety of all children matters, whether they attend a religious school or a nonreligious school,” said ADF Senior Counsel David Cortman.
Cortman asserted the denial on the basis of religious status is a direct violation of the U.S. Constitution and Supreme Court precedent.
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.”
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