Trinity Lutheran Church should not face discrimination because it is a church

by Aaron Matthew Weldon

April 18, 2017

Everyone should have an equal opportunity to benefit from public programs.  But in Missouri, the state has a denied a church public benefits that should be available to all.

Missouri runs a scrap tire program, giving nonprofit organizations the opportunity to receive reimbursement grants for playground resurfacing made from recycled tires.  The grant is funded by a fee that all Missouri citizens pay when they purchase new tires.  The state considers 16 criteria when determining if a grant applicant should receive the reimbursement.

Trinity Lutheran Church applied for a reimbursement grant for its playground, and its score was ranked number 5 out of over 40 applicants.  The top fifteen applicants were slated to receive grants.  However, Trinity Lutheran's preschool was denied the grant simply because it is affiliated with a church.

Trinity Lutheran is not asking the government to support religious activities or fund religious educational materials.  The church is asking to participate in a program that improves children's safety and is good for the environment—and that should be available to everyone.  The playground surface has nothing to do with the religious activities of the church.  In fact, most of the children who use the playground are not parishioners at Trinity Lutheran Church.  Trinity Lutheran's playground has an "open gate" policy and is open to all in the community.  This case is about public funding for a public good.

Religious freedom advocates have long opposed discrimination based solely on a person's identity.  While people should not be forced to participate in activities they believe to be immoral, no person or group should be discriminated against by the government simply because of who they are.  

In this case, Trinity Lutheran is being discriminated against by the State of Missouri based on its identity.  The state did not say anything about the activities of the church.  Rather, it denied the grant solely because Trinity Lutheran is a church.  This is the kind of status discrimination that we should all be seeking to eliminate from our public life.  People of faith should not be treated like second-class citizens.

Religious organizations like Trinity Lutheran serve their communities as important anchor institutions.  Such places give stability to neighborhoods and help to foster civic-mindedness in the community.  Furthermore, their members pay taxes and tire recycling fees just like everyone else.  Trinity Lutheran should be able to benefit from the program they pay into.  The children, of all faiths and none, who play at the Trinity Lutheran playground should be able to enjoy a safe place to play.  Shutting Trinity Lutheran out of this program harms the community and helps no one.

Aaron Matthew Weldon, Ph.D., is Religious Liberty Program Specialist for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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