WASHINGTON—The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a Columbia, Mo., parochial school's appeal involving its rejected application for a state grant to install recycled rubber playground surfacing.
The question presented in the case, according to the Supreme Court's synopsis, is whether the exclusion of churches from a neutral and secular aid program violates the Free Exercise and Equal Protection Clauses of the Constitution when the Establishment Clause does not apply. The court agreed Jan. 15 to hear the case.
In January 2012, Trinity Lutheran Church Child Learning Center applied to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources for one of the state's Playground Scrap Tire Surface Material grant to replace its pea gravel playground surface with surfacing made of recycled scrap tires.
DNR, however, rejected Trinity Lutheran's grant application, on the grounds that giving the school that grant constituted government funding of religion, which the Missouri Constitution specifically prohibits.
In rejecting Trinity Lutheran's suit, the Western Missouri district court and the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals applied Locke v. Davey, a 2004 Supreme Court decision in which the high court upheld the State of Washington's decision not to grant scholarship money to a theology student.
Trinity Lutheran, however, argued that Locke v. Davey was misapplied in this case.
“The (Missouri) Scrap Tire Program is completely secular and free of any nuances that could detract from deciding the issues presented in this appeal,” Trinity Lutheran said in its Supreme Court petition.
“Specifically, the state's program provides purely secular aid in the form of grants that can be used only for the purchase and delivery of scrap tire material, and cannot be used for any other purpose,” the petition said.
In its reply brief, DNR argued that the lower courts ruled appropriately.
“Here, the question is not whether the state can tell parents or students that although they have access to public funds for tuition, they cannot use those funds for education at a church-run school or for religious study,” the agency said.
“Rather, it is whether states are required by the U.S. Constitution to violate their own constitutions and choose a church to receive a grant when that means turning down non-church applicants,” it said. “That is not a question as to which there is an intercircuit conflict, nor one that otherwise demands this court's review at this time.”
The case number is 15-577.