Supreme Court delivers landmark ruling in favor of LCMS church preschool

With the U.S. Supreme Court delivering its Trinity Lutheran Church ruling in favor of the church on June 26, 2017, The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod will be looking at the specifics of the decision and its implications for religious liberty. (Wikipedia/Matt H. Wade)

By Roger Drinnon

The U.S. Supreme Court handed down its ruling June 26 in the case of a Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod church preschool, determining 7-2 that the state of Missouri’s barring of the church from a government aid program was unconstitutional.

While the LCMS was not a party to the litigation, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) attorneys represented Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Mo., in Trinity Lutheran Church (LCMS) v. Comer (formerly Pauley).

The case came about after Trinity was invited to apply for the 2012 Playground Scrap Tire Surface Material Grant Program to resurface its playground with recycled tire products to be provided by the supposedly neutral state program. The grant program was offered to Missouri nonprofits as a means to recycle scrap tires, in an attempt to reduce the amount of tires in landfills and to foster children’s safety.

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

“The Supreme Court’s decision today demonstrates the support of the principle that the government cannot treat religious organizations differently than other organizations just because of what we believe,” echoed LCMS President Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison. “Despite this case being about a preschool playground, a seemingly mundane and simple matter, this is a very big win for the fair and equal treatment of religious organizations.”

After applying for the playground-resurfacing program, Trinity Preschool later was deemed ineligible for the state grant program solely because the preschool is operated by a church.

After soliciting nonprofit organizations across the state to apply for the program and listing Trinity near the top of all applicants, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources decided Trinity’s learning center was ineligible for the program based on an interpretation of a state-constitution provision prohibiting government aid to religion.

ADF is a non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith. Its attorneys contended the case was a question of whether states can exhibit “hostility to religion” by barring churches from state aid programs solely because they are religious organizations. In oral arguments April 19, ADF attorneys asserted such discrimination violates the Free Exercise and Equal Protection Clauses of the First Amendment.

“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,” said Cortman. “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.”

The LCMS announced June 20 that the Rev. Dr. Gregory P. Seltz, speaker for “The Lutheran Hour,” officially accepted the Synod’s call to be the Lutheran Center for Religious Liberty (LCRL) executive director in Washington, D.C. The LCRL provides input, education, advice and resources in the areas of marriage, life issues and religious liberty and seeks to actively engage in discussions and establish partnerships, as appropriate, with individuals and groups in Washington, D.C.

“I look forward to my role with the LCRL and engaging on issues like this that impact religious organizations,” said Seltz. “One of the three areas of work will be to defend religious freedoms, liberties and rights of conscience for people of faith as provided to us by our founding fathers in the Constitution.”

In 2015, the LCMS participated in an amicus brief for the case. Amicus briefs provide pertinent information to the court regarding a case, alert the court to the ways in which the case may affect people outside of the two parties involved, and help draw public and media attention to an important issue. That amicus brief is available for download at lcms.org/board/amicusbriefs.

Harrison said the Synod now will be looking more closely at the specifics of the high court’s decision and its implications for religious liberty.

Roger Drinnon (roger.drinnon@lcms.org) is director of Editorial Services and Media Relations for LCMS Communications.

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Posted June 26, 2017

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14 Responses to Supreme Court delivers landmark ruling in favor of LCMS church preschool

  1. June 26, 2017 at 12:32 pm #

    Hallaluia! A victory for Trinity Lutheran and for our religious liberties.

  2. Heather Olsen June 26, 2017 at 1:34 pm #

    Thank you God. Maybe our country is beginning to turn around!

  3. Carol Sherrill June 26, 2017 at 3:13 pm #

    The Justices got it right that this case does not demonstrate government support for a particular religious doctrine. An opposite decision would have radiated 1st Ammenddment discrimination given the structure of the grant. The glory be to God.

  4. Tina June 26, 2017 at 4:03 pm #

    I am very thankful and joyful for this decision. But cautious in my joy with the many bad decisions that various courts continuously make against state rights for life, marriage and religious liberty. The real problem is that the federal government and federal courts have strayed from their constitutional moorings. The real, foundational solution is an Article V – Convention of States for proposing amendments. The president of ADF, Michael Farris, is co-founder of the group working to achieve 34 state resolutions for a Convention of States. This is the real, lasting solution. I urge all brothers and sisters in Christ to become familiar with the resolution and your state’s response to implement it.

    • Elsa June 27, 2017 at 12:52 pm #

      So glad that my state of North Dakota was number 10 to pass the COS resolution.

      • Tina June 30, 2017 at 9:50 pm #

        Wonderful! My state of Ohio is working hard to be next.

  5. Greg Hasseldahl June 26, 2017 at 4:22 pm #

    It’s important to read the dissenting opinion by Sotomayor and Ginsburg too.

    • D. Sonntag June 29, 2017 at 10:36 am #

      Agree.

  6. Paul Steiner June 26, 2017 at 5:13 pm #

    We can only hope!

  7. Kathy Patton June 26, 2017 at 7:40 pm #

    The mighty hand of God is guiding our Courts honestly and correctly. America is One Nation under God.

  8. Teresa Green June 27, 2017 at 6:50 am #

    This ruling is encouraging and sets precedence for future cases of narrow mindedness in government organizations toward churches.

  9. Ron OKC June 27, 2017 at 8:58 am #

    I, for one, am not so joyous. This case and the recent Hosanna-Tabor case trouble me —- have we become all about litigation? Is “beat them in the courtroom” our new gospel? Was not the better course the one which actually happened; Missouri (the State) changed her position as opposed to a church (or a Synod) winning by suing? Relying on secular courts is a fool’s game as courts can change over time. We must win hearts, not judges.

    The dissent actually makes an interesting point: Trinity Lutheran’s stated goal is to evangelize by Gospel proclamation, so is this not providing government money in order that Trinity can achieve her outreach objective? Would we be so celebratory if a Satanist movement demanded government money for its facility so they can tell children all about the greatness of humanism or witchcraft? While a playground is not religious per se, the organization’s motives are purely (and rightly, I might add) religious.

    • LCMS Church Information Center June 27, 2017 at 12:05 pm #

      Thank you for your comment.

      The state actually invited nonprofits, including Trinity, to apply for grants from the Playground Scrap Tire Surface Materials Grant Program that was administered by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR). As you likely know, the grant program recycles scrap tires into rubber playground surfaces in an attempt to reduce the amount of tires in landfills and to foster children’s safety. After listing Trinity among the top applicants, the Missouri DNR later decided Trinity’s learning center was ineligible for the program — a determination made solely on an interpretation of a state-constitution provision prohibiting government aid to religion.

      Also, the LCMS was not a party to the litigation. However, last year, the Synod participated in an amicus brief for the case. Amicus briefs provide pertinent information to the court regarding a case and alert the court to the ways in which the case may affect people outside of the two parties involved. The complete amicus brief is available for download at http://www.lcms.org/board/amicusbriefs.

    • Tina June 30, 2017 at 9:46 pm #

      We are not all about litigation! Our churches, schools and service agencies are full of sharing the Gospel. But we dare not take for granted the freedom to do that. Satan is always lying in wait to chip away at freedom. Freedom must be defended to allow us to proclaim and live the Gospel. Freedom to proclaim the Gospel, believe and worship AND freedom to live our faith in the world.

      Freedom of religion and freedom of speech apply to all faiths and people, not just those we agree with. That does not make us want to take away the freedom of others. It makes us work harder and pray more fervently that faith in the true God wins out.

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