COLUMBIA — The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments Wednesday in what could become a game-changing religious freedom case.
And it began on a Columbia church playground.
Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer has worked its way up the judicial ladder since 2012, when the church's application to Missouri's Scrap Tire Surface Material Grant program was rejected by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. The case was formerly known as Trinity v. Pauley — referring to the former director of the Department of Natural Resources, Sara Parker Pauley.
The church applied for the grant to resurface its preschool's playground with rubberized material to make it safer. Trinity Lutheran was ranked fifth out of the 44 organizations that applied in 2012 for qualifications, but the church was denied because of its status as a religious organization, according to a one-page summary by the religious freedom legal organization Alliance Defending Freedom.
Trinity contacted the Alliance after being rejected from the grant program, and the Alliance filed a lawsuit against Pauley on the church's behalf.
Gov. Eric Greitens on Thursday changed the state policy to allow religious organizations to receive grant money from the DNR. He said that because the purpose of the grant is non-religious, it's in line with the state constitution.
The governor said in a Facebook video that the rule reversal will prevent religious beliefs from being discriminated against.
"I'm here to fight for all Missourians, and that includes fighting for and defending people of faith who are too often under attack," he said.
The change isn't expected to affect the Trinity Lutheran case, though Richard Katskee, legal director for Americans United, said the case could become moot since the church can now technically apply for the grant.
Previously, the state cited a provision of the Missouri Constitution known as the Blaine Amendment in its rejection of the church's application. The Blaine Amendment is found in over 30 state constitutions and prohibits the use of state money by religious entities. That provision is also the basis of Trinity's failure on appeal: the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit found that church and state would be linked by the grant, according to previous Missourian reporting.
But Trinity is arguing that the funding isn't a matter of religion.
"Trinity Lutheran Church applied for Missouri's Scrap Tire Grant Program so that it could provide a safer playground for children who attend its daycare and for neighborhood children who use the playground after hours — a purely secular matter," Trinity wrote in its petition for Supreme Court consideration.
The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in January 2016.
The church's main argument rests on the importance of safety for all children. Alliance communications director Kerri Kupec likened the denial of funding based on the church's religious status to denying fire and rescue services to citizens based on their religious affiliation.
"We wouldn't say to a yeshiva or mosque or a parochial school or a temple that they can't call the fire department because they happen to be a religious organization," Kupec said. "This is the same kind of situation we're looking at here. This is a public safety benefit program."
Furthermore, Kupec said, over 90 percent of the children who attend the preschool don't go to the church, and the playground is open to the public after hours and on the weekend.
The case isn't about funding religious goals, Kupec said.
"The safety of all children should matter," she said. "It shouldn't matter if you're attending a preschool at a religious organization or attending a public school. A playground surface is a very secular benefit that people should enjoy and have access to, regardless of status as a person of faith."
Kupec also noted that all Missourians pay a fee on tires that goes toward the grant program.
"You have to pay that fee on the tire, but unfortunately the people of faith and their religious organizations can't benefit from this tire scrap program, even though their people are putting money into it," she said.
MU Law professor Carl Esbeck, who specializes in religious freedom, said the case is significant for a number of reasons. He noted that it's one of the first cases Neil Gorsuch will hear as a justice and his first religious freedom case on the Supreme Court, so it will be interesting to see the role he plays. Gorsuch was confirmed to the Supreme Court on April 7.
Esbeck also said the case is an opportunity for the Supreme Court to reinforce the Free Exercise Clause, which states that government can't purposefully discriminate against religion, and the ruling will apply to the entire nation.
The two lower federal courts in Missouri upheld the state's decision to deny Trinity funding based on the Blaine Amendment, or Article 1, Section 7 of the Missouri Constitution. Esbeck said that the two courts interpreted the section literally, and that interpretation would stand if the Supreme Court upholds the decision.
"On the other hand," Esbeck said, "if the church wins, then those two lower courts' decisions are vacated."
Esbeck said the church has a strong case, but at the top of the judicial ladder, "things are always a little unpredictable."
Kupec said she hoped the court will look at what the funding is directed toward, as the court has done in previous cases.
"Here the funding is very clear: It's for a safer playground surface, and I think we can all agree that whether you are a Jewish kid or a Muslim kid or a Christian kid, if you fall on the playground and hurt yourself, it's going to hurt regardless of whether you're at a religious preschool or public institution."
Although the High Court will hear arguments on Wednesday, it isn't likely to render a decision until June.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.