WASHINGTON -- Many are warning a case heard Wednesday by the U.S. Supreme Court about putting a soft surface on a Missouri playground has broad implications for religious rights across America.
Missouri was giving out grants to help non-profits that have playgrounds put rubberized surfaces on them.
"That made the playgrounds safer," Faith and Freedom Coalition Chairman Ralph Reed told CBN News. "Children were less likely to be injured. If they fell down, they were less likely to skin a knee or break a bone."
But when a Columbia, Missouri, church applied for such a grant, it kicked off a major church-state fight.
Trinity Lutheran Church and its preschool certainly qualified for the grant under the criteria set by the state. But when state bureaucrats noticed Trinity Lutheran was a religious organization, it tossed out the church's application, saying separation of church and state means no state money can go for anything to do with religious groups.
That's the position taken by Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
"This preschool, with its playground attached, is an essential part of the ministry of this church and an essential part of its mission," Lynn said of Trinity Lutheran.
Former Missouri Solicitor General James Layton argued the case before the high court for Missouri.
"Almost 200 years ago, the people of the state of Missouri, adopting language that finds its origin in the founding fathers in Virginia and elsewhere, decided that we were not going to tax people in order to give money to churches," Layton stated at a news conference after the hearing.
A Case of Religious Discrimination?
But Trinity Lutheran and its lawyer argued protecting kids on a playground isn't going to promote religion and shouldn't be discriminated against.
"We aren't asking for special treatment," said Annette Kiehne, Trinity Lutheran Child Learnin Center director. "We are just asking not to be treated worse than everyone else. Whether you are a Jewish, Muslim, or Christian kid, or not religious at all, when you fall down on a playground, it hurts just as much at a religious preschool as it does at a non-religious school."
David Cortman of the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) argued the case for Trinity Lutheran, saying Missouri discriminated against the church just because it's religious.
"The denial was because of who the organization was," Cortman said at Wednesday's news conference. "When you approach the government, why should it matter who you are? Why should it matter if you're a person of faith or not?"
'We're Becoming Second-Class Citizens'
ADF CEO Michael Farris warned, "There's a broad concern among religious people in this country that we're becoming second-class citizens. All we want, all religious people in this country, are asking for, is equal treatment."
After the hearing, ADF Senior Counsel Erik Stanley told CBN News the justices seemed to find flaws in Missouri's hardline stance. He mentioned a moment when Justice Samuel Alito questioned Missouri's attorney, Layton.
"He said, 'What about a Department of Homeland Security program that would harden schools against terrorism? Under the state of Missouri's policy, would that be allowed for church schools?' And Mr. Layton said 'No, that would not be allowed,' " Stanley said.
The questioning at the hearing was so tough on Missouri's Layton that Travis Weber of the Family Research Council's Center for Religious Liberty said he almost felt sorry for the attorney.
"The number of questions from a broad range of justices exposed the silliness of the state's position here," Weber stated.
Neil Gorsuch Weighs In
Weber also mentioned the Supreme Court's new justice, Neil Gorsuch, jumped in to clarify how religious rights were being wounded by Missouri's position.
"I think Justice Gorsuch wanted to make the point that religious freedom here demanded equal protection for churches and non-churches, religious institutions and non-religious institutions," Weber explained. "He made that point precisely and very poignantly at the right moment."
Reed worried how Missouri's position against any aid for religious organizations could be used to prevent them getting vital services, like protection by police or firefighters.
Reed stated, "If essentially secular programs are allowed to be banned for people of faith simply because of their religious faith, that's a pretty bad precedent to set that could be used by governments at the state and local level to discriminate against religion in all kinds of other ways."
Outside the U.S. Supreme Court, a news conference took place just after the justices heard the Trinity Lutheran Church case. Speakers were lawyers who argued for and against Trinity Lutheran being denied a Missouri state grant simply because it’s a religious organization. They were joined by advocates for religious rights and, on the other side, proponents of strict separation of church and state.