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. 

Anyone can see that government grants to build and maintain playgrounds provide a competitive advantage to the recipient, be they restaurant, hotel, or school. Consumers will include the status of the playground in their mental calculations about which location to frequent or business to hire. Trinity Lutheran Church’s preschool, with its shiny new playground, might even attract some students away from public schools, thus denying those public schools of some state and local funding.

The issue of public school funding must also be taken into account when deciding this Supreme Court case. Across the U.S., public schools are funded based on the number of students in attendance. When students leave public schools for private schools, the public school receives less money from the state. If too many students leave a public school, enough funding may disappear to disintegrate a “critical mass” of money needed to provide for extracurricular activities, field trips, or other services.

Basically, a small amount of the per-diem state funding for most students can be used for things other than direct services to the student. This helps build up funds to be used for extracurricular activities, which benefit groups of students that choose to participate. If not enough students attend the public school, however, not enough money builds up in these funds to create workable extracurriculars. The public schools become dreary shells, unable to provide anything beyond the bare minimum. Public school students are therefore harmed.

By subsidizing private schools and helping them attract students, the government is violating the rights of all remaining public school students through deprivation of funding.

When it comes to education funding, it is essentially a zero-sum game. Although proponents of “school choice” will adamantly deny that school voucher funding will come directly from public school coffers, it is undeniable that states will cut funding for public schools as soon as their enrollment numbers decrease. No matter which way you slice it, education funding by states is the equivalent of a zero-sum game between public schools and private schools. If private schools get more money from the government, the public schools will inevitably get less.

Since the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, it has been required of states to provide a decent and equitable education to all students. This is justified by the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Giving government funds to private schools, such as Trinity Lutheran Church’s preschool, will result in an erosion of public school quality… which is unconstitutional.

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