On Monday the Supreme Court ruled to allow Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Missouri, to receive state funds to resurface the church school’s playground. Naturally, this raises questions about the whole separation of church and state debate—is SCOTUS advocating government financial support of religious institutions?
Before we jump to conclusions, let’s look at the facts.
At the time that Trinity Lutheran Church applied for the state fund grant, the Missouri state constitution, like many state constitutions, mandated that the government couldn’t spend public money on “any church, sect, or denomination of religion.” However, it’s important to note that the funds here aren’t being used to promote anything religious—they’re solely being used to resurface a playground and make it safer for kids.
There’s precedence for this with other states. While government funds are not to be used for anything religious in nature, many states allow religious organizations like Trinity to apply for funds if they’re being used for secular benefits like health and safety.
The funds in this case are disbursed by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, which had enough money at the time to fund 14 of the 44 applicants. Trinity was eligible for these funds in every way—except for the fact that it’s a church.
While the argument that this is religious discrimination seems a bit thin, it’s hard to argue with Trinity’s lawyer David Cortman, who said during the case that the government “is not being asked to fund a religious activity. It’s funding the playground where students play.”
In making their decision, SCOTUS was very aware of the concerns regarding separation of church and state. They even added a caveat to their official statement, noting that in this case “we do not address religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination.”
The care with which this decision was made makes it very clear that it’s not intended to suddenly smash the wall down between church and state. This is a very specific (and secular) case regarding a safety issue.
Should Trinity have pursued funds through an outlet other than the city? Probably, considering the law on the books at the time. But given that their intention here is to provide a safe place for kids to play—not to ask the government to help with the indoctrination of children—it’s a bit of a leap to assume that this one case is going to lead to the complete destruction of the Constitution.
*Photo credit: Tiffany Craig at Flickr Creative Commons.