By Sharon Mager
WASHINGTON, D.C.—Many Christians will give a passing glance at articles about the recent Supreme Court decision regarding “Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v Comer, Director, Missouri Department of Natural Resources.” But Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission President Russell Moore says to take another look at the case, which concerns a church preschool’s denial of a government grant to replace their playground gravel with rubber from recycled tires.
“This case isn’t about recycled tire scraps any more than Hobby Lobby was about picture frames,” Moore said. “This is a more fundamental question of what does it mean for religious people to be active and involved in the public square and not to be discriminated against.”
Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware Executive Director Kevin Smith recently joined Moore, along with Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Counsel David Cortman, and Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., during last week’s (June 29, 2017) “Capitol Conversations” with the ERLC and ADF at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, D.C.
At this meeting, Cortman explained the case. Trinity Lutheran Church Child Learning Center, a Missouri preschool and daycare center, has a playground with tiny pebbles under the play equipment. The school applied for a grant to replace the gravel with a poured rubber surface, participating in the state’s scrap tire program run by Missouri’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Though they ranked fifth out of over 40 applicants, the DNR denied the application because the preschool was sponsored by a church.
Cortman, who argued on behalf of Trinity Lutheran before the Supreme Court, said ADF looked at the case and saw that they were indeed being disqualified solely because they’re run by a religious organization. The ADF filed and lost the case in federal court and then again in the court of appeals, then amazingly, the Supreme Court took the case.
“When you ask the Supreme Court to take a case, the odds of them taking it are less than 1 percent,” Cortman explained, noting there were bigger principles at stake—”more than skinned knees.” Cortman said the court held that “[i]f there is any kind of government program, and it’s opened up under any criteria to a group of organizations…if you qualify for that program and the only reason that you are excluded from it is because of your religious status, because of who you are as a person or organization, that is no longer allowed.”
Cortman said there are 39 states that have similar restrictions in their state constitutions and now those provisions can no longer be used to exclude religious organizations from any type of government benefit.
Moore said, “When it comes to this case, some people might misinterpret that we want government financing the mission of the church. I’m a real Baptist— a real-time ‘Roger Willams Baptist.’ There is nothing I despise more than a state-established religion. At best, it becomes a lifeless dead bureaucracy. At worst, it ends up being a persecutor, so I would be the first one screaming if the U.S. government wanted to come in and start funding our churches or any other house of worship. That’s not what this case is about.
“What it’s about is whether government will come in and say, ‘[T]his is for all of you in the community, but if you are a religious person or group or organization, then on the basis of that you cannot even come and have a conversation and be in this place.’ That is what this case is about.”
Kevin Smith agreed. In response to these issues, he said he hopes to enlighten pastors on how this and similar issues and rulings matter, and to bring attention to the fact that there are brothers and sisters advocating on behalf of the church. “We have churches really seeking to love their neighbor and bring community goods to their local context,” Smith said. Sometimes those resources are available to them but they’re not aware, or don’t move forward because they feel they would be shunned.
“This case will be helpful,” Smith said, noting in Baltimore and some Washington suburbs there are some areas that are especially challenging. “If those resources are there to provide community goods, I want our churches to feel free to pursue those things in light of the free exercise clause.”
Delegate Hartzler has visited Trinity Church and its preschool and said she is proud of them. They could have easily backed down, Hartzler said, but they knew more was at stake.
“This was pure and simple discrimination because of belief. We’re here for such a time as this. When you have an opportunity to stand up for religious freedom, let’s do it! It’s a First Amendment right. If that goes down, it’s the fall of the nation,” she said. “We need to appreciate the victory and take back some of the things that have been infringed on in the past.”
While celebrating the victory, Smith reminded believers, “These cases are extremely important, but however these cases are decided, our mission and our status as a church still doesn’t change. We’re still strangers and foreigners passing through a barren land. I try to anchor pastors in that stability so we are aggressively trying to enjoy the full liberty of the constitution but at the same time our stability as followers of Christ, thus our peace, our joy, our contentment is not altered by every single court decision.”
In closing, Moore said, “Before we are people committed to religious liberty, we must be people committed to the Gospel, which means that we live in a culture where people assume that if you just put enough government power or enough cultural power (in it) that people are going to toss their religious convictions overboard and just get into the herd wherever its going. We have to be the people who are communicating to those who don’t understand what we believe, why we believe it and the fact that we’re going to hold it…regardless. We don’t want persecution, but we’re still going to hold by our beliefs even if we have persecution.
“I think the number 1 thing we have to do in order to ensure religious liberty is to raise up a generation of people who actually know what they believe, and who not only have the clarity of what they believe but the courage to hold to that, even if that have to hold to that alone, or what seems to be alone,” Moore said.
Moore referred to Elijah, who at a point of despair, God reminded him that there were 7,000 more who believed, and he referred to the “great cloud of witnesses” mentioned in Hebrew 12:1. You may feel alone, Moore said, but, “no one is truly alone.”