Attorney visits to discuss Columbia church Supreme Court case

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COLUMBIA – The Alliance Defending Freedom attorney who is representing a local church in a Supreme Court case visited the church for the first time Wednesday.

In 2012, Trinity Lutheran applied for a Missouri Department of Conservation grant. The Scrap Tire Grant allows schools and parks to use shredded scrap tires for playground bedding.

The church’s legal counsel, David Cortman, said that, during the awarding process, the Department of Natural Resources ranked the church five out of 44 applications and made awards to 14 organizations.

But Trinity Lutheran did not receive a grant after the state said its constitution prohibits using public money to help a church.

“They said that, because of the the state’s establishment clause, the separation of church and state, that the church wouldn’t be able to get a grant, simply for that reason,” Cortman said.

A trial court dismissed the case, but the church appealed the decision.

The Supreme Court justices agreed in January 2016 to decide whether a state violates churches’ constitutional rights when it refuses to include them in general aid programs. 

The Supreme Court will hear Trinity Lutheran Church’s challenge in early October.  

Cortman said he thinks the state is taking “an extreme position.”

“What the state is saying is that the state constitution requires them to allow kids who attend a preschool that’s attached to a church, it’s okay for them to be hurt, it’s okay for them when they fall – not to fall on a comfortable rubberized playground,” Cortman said.

He said the state is saying the state constitution requires it to discriminate against religious organizations' daycare as opposed to secular daycare.

He said this case is not just about the church, the Learning Center or Missouri. Instead, he said the case is about the “entire nation” and how religious organizations are treated.  

“This is about the children and their safety,” Cortman said. “And it doesn’t make any sense to me for someone to say to me, ‘yes it’s okay for your kids not to have a safe playground, but we’re going to make sure other kids have a safe playground.’”

Trinity Lutheran Child Learning Center director Gail Schuster said the majority of the children who attend the preschool aren’t members of the church or attend the church.

“This year it happens, during the summer, out of 82, we have four children that attend – are members of our church,” she said.

The state’s briefing is due to the Supreme Court on June 28.

Missouri Department of Natural Resources Director of Communications Tom Bastian said the department does not comment on pending litigation.

In a previous KOMU story about the case, Stephanie Deidrick with DNR said, “Language was added to the Scrap Tire Grant application forms to better reflect the Department’s understanding of the constitutional limitations associated with providing assistance to entities with a religious affiliation.”