Supreme Court: Church Can Receive Public Funds for Playground Renovation

By George Khoury, Esq. on June 28, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

In a 7-2 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the Trinity Church in Missouri should have been awarded public funding for resurfacing their playground with recycled tire rubber. While, at first blush, this may not sound so shocking, the ruling tows the line on the separation of church and state.

While seven justices concurred in the result, even among those justices, there was a difference in opinion regarding whether the decision was limited based on the facts of the case. Basically, the Trinity Church applied for a state grant to provide money to rubberize their playground, but was denied due to being a religious organization. The church filed suit, alleging the denial violated the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.

Church Run Public Playground

The majority opinion in this case relies upon the fact that the Trinity Church's playground renovation is not an expression of religion. This fact allowed the Court to find that the denial of funding was discriminatory as the money being sought was not to be used for any religious purpose, but rather to renovate a (privately owned) public playground. The church, which was otherwise eligible, was denied solely because it is a church.

The Court concluded that "the exclusion of Trinity Lutheran from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, solely because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution all the same, and cannot stand." However, this decision is not without criticism and dissent from within the court.

Separation of Church and State

Among the most well known concepts that the United States is founded upon is the separation of church and state. This concept essentially prohibits the government from taking any actions that would be seen as an endorsement, or conferring an unfair advantage, to one religion over any other religion, or secular institution.

This decision, as the dissenting opinion, authored by Justice Sotomayor, points out, cannot truly be squared away with the separation of church and state. While providing a public playground may not be a specific religious expression, it cannot be removed from the religious mission of the church. Justice Sotomayor, along with Justice Ginsburg, dissented, finding the decision to run afoul of the same constitutional Amendment the majority relied on to reach their decision.

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