Private Church School Wants Public Funds For Their Park


In Columbia, Missouri, a private school owned and operated by Trinity Lutheran Church applied for a state grant to renovate its playground.  The state of Missouri, similar to about 40 other states, has a strict ban on government funding for church-affiliated organizations written into its constitution, resulting in a denial of the grant. The church sued, arguing that Missouri’s law violated freedom of religion.

Oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court reveal a divided bench that seems to be leaning sympathetically toward the church, with conservative justices implying that giving grants to churches is no different than providing them with police or fire protection. This reasoning has been voiced by the Court’s newest member, Donald Trump appointee Neil Gorsuch, who suggested that giving grant money to churches is similar to giving government services to religious individuals.

The Court is leaning in a dangerous direction and should keep the “wall of separation” firmly planted between Church and State. Allowing religious schools to receive government grants is a violation of the Founding Fathers’ devout beliefs that the two entities be kept separate. Although many conservatives would try to argue that allowing religious schools to apply for government grants is innocuous and a non-religious secular activity, the harms run deep.

First of all, giving government money to religious schools, or any private schools for that matter, is not the same as providing the first responder services guaranteed to every citizen. Giving money to a private-sector entity is a de facto subsidy that lowers that entity’s cost of production.  Trinity Lutheran Church’s preschool, though it may be classified as a nonprofit, is an economic competitor. It competes for students with other schools in the area, both public and private. If the government subsidizes its playground remodel, the government effectively gives it a leg up in terms of luring tuition-paying students.

Even though the playground equipment may be secular, you cannot avoid the fact that the owner of the playground, the private school owned by Trinity Lutheran Church, is private. Unlike funding for police, fire, EMS, welfare, or other social services, the government money given to Trinity Lutheran Church is not intended to benefit everyone. Only the tuition-paying students of Trinity Lutheran’s preschool will get to enjoy the refurbished playground.

If you wish to argue that government grants for private school playgrounds should be acceptable because such grants are going to a “secular activity,” you would be hard-pressed to disagree with using government grants to build or maintain playgrounds at fast food restaurants or hotels.  Those playgrounds, after all, do not charge direct admission: Anyone who enters the grounds of the McDonald’s or Hotel 6 may use it. 

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