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Supreme Court Hears Missouri Scrap-Tire Playground Funding Case

A lawsuit involving a Christian church’s preschool playground made its way to oral arguments before the Supreme Court on Wednesday.

The case, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Pauley, revolves around Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Missouri, and a statewide scrap-tire program that provides grants to help pay for rubberized surface material on children’s playgrounds.

“Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia decided it was time to resurface its Learning Center playground, which is a hub of activity,” Christiana Holcomb, legal counsel at Christian legal organization Alliance Defending Freedom, wrote in an op-ed for The Hill. “It serves not only community children enrolled in the preschool program but also ones who drop by on evenings and weekends to enjoy the swings and slides.”

Missourians pay a 50-cent tax on tire purchases to fund the playground’s surface-material grant program.

The state government excluded religious non-profit organizations from the program, according to Alliance Defending Freedom. The Arizona-based organization represents Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia.

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The church operates a preschool and daycare center, which applied for the grant-reimbursement program in 2012. The state government provided partial funding to 14 programs — but it denied funding for the surface material to Trinity Lutheran, according to Alliance Defending Freedom.

“Those who play on playgrounds owned by religious groups are just as deserving of safe spaces as those who play on playgrounds owned by the non-religious,” Holcomb wrote. “Especially when you consider that, in Trinity’s case, 90 percent of the neighborhood children who use the playground don’t even attend the church.”

"This case was granted in the same setting where a number of cases were granted last year and scheduled and argued and decided already," Paul Clement, a former solicitor general of the United States, said in September 2016 at an event at the The Heritage Foundation, a conservative public-policy think tank.

After the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia passed away in February 2016, eight justices were left on the highest court. With newly appointed Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch added to the bench, now nine justices will decide this important religious-freedom case.

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"Here is something you learn very quickly, working with children: A kid is a kid," Annette Kiehne, the preschool director at the Trinity Lutheran Child Learning Center, said outside the Supreme Court Wednesday after oral arguments. "Playground time, for a child, is about play. And play should be safe; safety shouldn't hinge on whether a child is religious or they are playing on a playground at a religious school or at a secular or public institution."

Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens called the state's policy "prejudiced." Greitens, a Republican, announced a reversal of the state's policy last week and instructed the Department of Natural Resources to allow religious organizations to apply for and receive the same playground material funding as any other organization.

"Before we came into office, government bureaucrats were under orders to deny grants to people of faith who wanted to do things like make community playgrounds for kids … That's just wrong," Greitens said. "We have hundreds of outstanding religious organizations all over the state of Missouri who are doing great work on behalf of kids and families every single day. We should be encouraging that work."