Today the United States Supreme Court included the title of this post, which has been quoted here from that opinion, in its opinion determining that the state of Missouri violated the First Amendment by refusing to award grant money to an otherwise eligible non-profit for the replacement of pea gravel playgrounds with rubber matted playgrounds. The rubber matting is poured and made from the recycling of tires. The non-profit was a church. Missouri refused to allow the church to be eligible for the playground grant because the Missouri constitution requires separation of church and state and the court in Missouri deemed playground resurfacing grants as an aid to established religion.
Thus, a non-profit that qualifies for a government benefit cannot be excluded simply because it is a church or para-church organization. Trinity Lutheran Church v Comer, Slip. Op., ___ US ___ (June 26, 2017).
The church qualified for the grant because it was a non-profit, it served low income children in its school, its school was open to any student of any faith and not just church or denomination members, and the playground was used by the community as well as the school. And, as the Court noted: “the gravel can be unforgiving.”
While many will see this decision as both enlightened and fair to taxpayers that happen to be religious rather than permitting those taxpayers to be penalized because they have organized themselves into a church, government money should always be accepted cautiously. It rarely is freely given and usually comes with compliance obligations. For example, to qualify, the church also had to make a showing that it was developing or had a recycling program of some type. While that is probably innocuous, other requirements in other programs might not be.