Director, Commonwealth Policy Center

Tomorrow, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in an important case regarding religious freedom and whether the government can treat religious institutions as second class. The case at hand involves a Missouri church that applied for a grant to receive recycled scrap tire material for its playground. The state rejected the application on the grounds that it was a religious institution and shouldn't be eligible for any public funds. But shouldn't the state treat all organizations equally when it comes to programs that serve the public good?

The funding applied for wasn't to erect a church, pay a pastor's salary, or promote a theological position. It was a state program that turned recycled tires into useful material to make Missouri's playgrounds safer for children. Interestingly, most of the kids that attend Trinity Lutheran's daycare aren't members of the church. Nor are neighborhood kids who use the playground after hours.  Public safety should be blind to religion persuasion.  After all, atheist kids are just as vulnerable to injury from an unpadded playground as the religious kids.

The court case is important in that it will either confirm ongoing elitist hostility toward religious institutions or vindicate religious freedom protections under the Constitution. Under obtuse Obamacare mandates, the Little Sisters of the Poor faced $70 million per year fines for refusing to provide birth control in their health insurance plan. Fortunately, the Supreme Court recognized that the Catholic nun's deeply held religious convictions were protected by the First Amendment and overturned the heavy-handed imposition last May.

Some have argued that since Trinity Lutheran doesn't pay taxes, it shouldn't receive any benefits from the state. If that's true, why do fire and rescue squads answer calls to churches and religious organizations in need? If it's unthinkable to decline public protection to religious institutions then why should the state of Missouri be allowed to discriminate in public programs meant to enhance public safety of its playgrounds?

The Constitution clearly prohibits federally sponsored religion. But at the same time, it requires the state to remain neutral toward religious organizations. Unfortunately, the state of Missouri has wrongly treated Trinity Lutheran as inferior to secular organizations and therefore ineligible to participate in its grant program.

Confusing the issue is public perception of the First Amendment and what the First Amendment actually says. According to a poll by the First Amendment Center in 2011, "two-thirds of Americans believe that the Constitution mandates a separation between church and state."  While the Bill of Rights prohibits the federal government from establishing a state-sponsored religion, the actual phrase "separation between church and state" is nowhere to be  found in the U.S. Constitution.

The phrase comes from a letter Thomas Jefferson sent to Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut who were fearful of state-supported religion prevalent in the colonies. The anti-federalist Jefferson assured them the First Amendment provided a "wall of separation" protecting them from federal government interference.

The First Amendment was never meant to hinder churches from speaking to culture, morality, government, or applying for grants that benefit public safety. But in our hyper-sensitive and secular age, anything religiously affiliated in the public arena is often held suspect.  Trinity Lutheran was unfortunately caught in the crosshairs of this misconception. If the Supreme Court vindicates Trinity, it will ensure the government remains neutral toward grant applicants of public programs meant to enhance the common good. And when that happens, kids on a few more playgrounds should be a little safer.

This column appeared in the Lexington Herald-Leader on April 18, 2017.