Missouri Church Playground Case Sets Slippery Precedent

  • Calvin Wolf
  • Jun 29, 2017 10:16AM

In a 7-2 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Missouri church that had previously been denied a state grant that would allow it to resurface its preschool playground. A state law, based on the state’s 1875 constitution, expressly banned any government grants going to a church or religious denomination. The grant in question, eligible to any nonprofit organization, was thus denied to the preschool. A lawsuit resulted, and lower courts upheld the state’s position.

Conservatives are heralding the Supreme Court’s decision as a boon for religious freedom, while liberals are bemoaning an alleged crack that has just appeared in the “wall of separation” between church and state. The rationale that seemed to have won the day, in Court at least, was that the preschool playground itself had nothing to do with religion. The state grant, which would have bought rubber scraps to resurface the playground, would not be subsidizing religious practices. 

The state of Missouri, critics contended, was denying the church the right to apply for the nonprofit-targeted grant simply because it was a church. No church should have to disavow its religious nature to compete equally with other nonprofits, they argued. Now that the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of this logic, it can be assured that many churches and church-affiliated schools will apply for government grants that are open to nonprofits.

But… can liberals try to shore up the “wall of separation” in Democratic states by passing laws that require such grants to be used only on projects that are available to the general public?

One point of contention regarding the preschool playground, despite its nonreligious nature, was that it was a private playground. Should any nonprofit receive taxpayer dollars to pay for benefits that are only enjoyable by members of that nonprofit? Many would argue not, and quickly demand that any church playground that receives taxpayer subsidies be open to the general public.

Legislatures might attach “general public” strings to any grants received by nonprofits, especially churches. If a facility is improved by such a grant, the facility must be open to the general public. This could mean that a church or church-affiliated school could not use a taxpayer-funded grant to improve any property that did not border a public street, sidewalk, or other public property like a park, sports field, or facility. If the church property in question were not immediately accessible to the general public, it would not be eligible for the grant.

Another string would be requiring that the church not use the improved facility to compete with other churches, nonprofits, or public services, such as public schools. For example, the church could not include photographs of the newly-resurfaced preschool playground in any school pamphlets. If the church could use photographs of the new-and-improved playground to try and attract new tuition-paying families to its school, the grant would effectively be subsidizing the church’s operations at the expense of competing schools.

Similarly, if the new playground were used to try to attract new parishioners, the government grant would have gone to the purpose of sponsoring a church or religious denomination.

Putting “general public” strings on government grants to nonprofits and churches may seem silly and excessive, but we must beware the slippery slope that the Supreme Court has just put into effect. The Court has ruled that the separation between church and state is not violated if the state money does not go toward funding church activities specifically.  Unfortunately, this is very ambiguous, especially when many churches have a broad array of activities.  Churches can sponsor schools, participate in sports leagues, and host and support charities and nonprofits like Boy Scout troops. 

If church money and resources go to these non-religious activities, then a grant that goes to those activities instead effectively allows the church to retain its money for religious activities. The result is the same as if the government had allowed the grant to be used for religious activities in the first place. Although the activities of the church are positive, the grants cannot be given to every church and thus result in some churches and denominations being favored, consciously or subconsciously, over others. In the South, for example, Baptist churches may more easily receive government grants than Catholic churches or Jewish synagogues, resulting in de-facto state support of a denomination.

By attaching strict strings to government grants for churches, states can ensure that the churches are truly focused on the public good and not simply subsidizing their own activities. If a church is willing to open up its improved facilities to the general public, then most liberals and devout separation of church and state-ers will have no complaints. Churches and their religious services serve an invaluable role in our society and should indeed be strongly supported… but by individual citizens rather than the state. Only those activities that are open to the general public should receive government subsidies.