A Playground Fight

A playground squabble is shaping up to be the next court case further defining the separation of church and state, and a religious liberty issue. The case is titled Trinity Lutheran Church v. Pauley.

The state of Missouri has a grant program that partial funds reimbursements to children playgrounds that decide to resurface their play area with repurposed rubber from old tires. The rubber surface has proven to drastically reduce playground injuries. The grant offered an incentive to playgrounds to resurface their play areas.

When Trinity Lutheran’s Child Learning Center applied for a grant it was denied. Although Trinity’s preschool provides child services to the local community, and has an “open gate” policy allowing neighborhood children to use its facilities on weekends, the state of Missouri denied the grant because it violated the state’s Blaine Amendment that requires public funds to be used for strictly secular purposes.

The Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys representing the church question how providing a safe playing surface for children on a church playground advances a sectarian belief. Is it fair to deny a church preschool neutral public funds for what is clearly a non-religious purpose, making a children’s playground safer?

The case was appealed to the Supreme Court and oral arguments have been heard. When the Court hands down its decision it will be the first religious freedom case heard by Donald Trump’s newly appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch.

I am reminded of a story told in the Scriptures. Abram’s (his name is changed later to Abraham) nephew Lot is living in the town of Sodom when a rival king conquers it. This king kidnaps the town’s inhabitants and loots its property. When Abram learns of his nephew’s capture he arranges a rescue party and frees Lot and his fellow citizens and their property.

When Abraham returns the king of Sodom meets him. Grateful for the rescue of his people, the king of Sodom tells Abram, “Give the people to me and take the goods for yourself.” Abram tells him, “I have sworn to the Lord God Most High, possessor of heaven and earth, that I will not take a thread or a sandal thong or anything that is yours, for fear you would say, ‘I have made Abram rich,’” Genesis 14:21-23.

I am torn on this issue. On one hand, I do not see how this could be construed by the state of Missouri as an “establishment of religion” in the case at bar when the funds in question would be used for a clearly non-religious purpose. If the church caught fire would the local fire department refuse to respond because it is a church?

On the other hand, I am concerned when the church accepts a government handout to provide the services we should be empowered by God to provide. I feel like Abram; I don’t want the government to be able to say it helped us in doing God’s work. The hand of the benefactor can easily become the arm of the taskmaster.

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