On Monday, June 26, the United States Supreme Court ruled in a decisive 7-2 decision in favor of religious freedom. The ruling affirmed that the state cannot punish or mistreat a church or organization for simply being religious. The decision is very encouraging because it affirms that the government cannot bully Christians or Christian organizations simply for being Christian.
Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer featured a preschool run by Trinity Lutheran Church. The school applied for a a reimbursement grant for resurfacing their playground with rubberized tires to create a safer environment for children. The grant program was open to all nonprofits. But the state of Missouri denied their request even though they were rated as a prime recipient for the grant, having been ranked fifth by the state of Missouri out of forty-four applicants through a rigorous application process. The reason for the denial was because the playground was operated by a school operated by a church. What’s absurd about this case is that the playground was not just for the private use of the preschool but was also open to the kids in the community. There is no such thing as a “religious” playground.
An attorney working on the case, Erik Stanley, wrote:
Under that logic, a state could exclude a mosque from an asbestos removal program, a synagogue from a city project to fix cracked public sidewalks, or a church from fire protection. After all, couldn’t these be perceived as “aid” to religion? Missouri tried to build such a high wall between church and state that it walled off the free exercise rights of its citizens to participate fully in the life of the community and not be singled out and mistreated solely because of their religious identity.
Thankfully, the Supreme Court agreed in Monday’s ruling that a state cannot practice blatant religious discrimination. According to Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented the preschool:
Practically speaking, this decision means that the State of Missouri cannot exclude religious organizations and individuals from generally available public benefits simply because of their beliefs. If the government is permitted to do that, then what would keep it from denying public services like police and fire protection to churches or other religious nonprofits?
Neutrality toward religion does not require that the government treat people and organizations of faith worse than everyone else. It just means they must treat them equally.
In a day of increasing religious intolerance — and yes, even violence — the Supreme Court’s decision reaches back to the commitment to religious liberty America was founded upon and re-emphasizes it for this generation. The Trinity Lutheran case stands as a reminder that we are all citizens of one country regardless of our religious identity or status, and we deserve to be treated equally, not discriminated against by the government because of our religion. The Supreme Court’s decision simply echoed what we tell children on the playground: Play fair.