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Supreme Court: Public Benefit Programs Available to Churches
Supreme Court: Public Benefit Programs Available to Churches
Excluding church from playground funding solely based on its religion violates First Amendment, Court says.

In a historic ruling (Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, 2017 WL 2722410), the United States Supreme Court has ruled that a state program providing free playground surfacing to any school or preschool—except churches or other religious organizations—violated the First Amendment’s protection of the free exercise of religion.

The Trinity Lutheran Church Child Learning Center is a preschool and daycare center open throughout the year. Established as a nonprofit organization in 1980, the center merged with Trinity Lutheran Church in 1985 and operates under its auspices on church property. The center admits students of any religion, and enrollment stands at about 90 children ranging from ages two to five.

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.” Children often fall on the playground or tumble from the equipment. When they do, the gravel surface can cause injuries.

In 2012, the center sought to replace a large portion of the pea gravel with a pour-in-place rubber surface by participating in Missouri’s Scrap Tire Program. Run by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources to reduce the number of used tires destined for landfills and dump sites, the program offers reimbursement grants to qualifying nonprofit organizations that purchase playground surfaces made from recycled tires. It is funded through a fee imposed on the sale of new tires in the state.

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July 5, 2017
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