Politics & Policy

When Hostility to Religion Means Making Christian Kids Less Safe

(Serrnovik/Dreamstime)

The most revealing cases can sometimes come from the most boring facts. Last week, my former colleagues at the Alliance Defending Freedom filed their opening brief at the Supreme Court in perhaps the most important case about recycled tires in American constitutional history. Yes, I said recycled tires.

Missouri — because it purports to love children and the environment — created a program that uses scrap rubber from old tires to resurface playgrounds to make them safer. The program is funded through a surcharge on new tires, rubber that would otherwise pack landfills is put to good use, and kids bounce when they fall. Everyone wins, right?

Well, not everyone. Missouri excludes religious organizations from the program. Christian kids at Christian schools don’t get to bounce. So when Trinity Lutheran Church submitted a request for rubberized flooring for a playground that is used not just by the children at its Early Learning Center but also — after-hours and on weekends — by children in the community, the state denied its application. It relied on the state’s expansive version of the odious Blaine amendment to give it license to discriminate.

“Blaine amendments” are a short-hand term for state constitutional provisions inspired by former speaker of the House James Blaine. The intent — motivated by anti-Catholicism — was to pass a federal constitutional amendment prohibiting the use of any taxpayer funds to aid any schools “under the control of any religious sect.” While the amendment failed in the Senate, it swept like wildfire through the states, and now at least 36 states have some form of Blaine amendment on the books.

RELATED: Why is Missouri Unfairly Discriminating against Church Playgrounds?

The staunchly Protestant legislators who passed the amendments could hardly imagine the world we live in today. American public schools were often chock-full of religious sentiment — Protestant religious sentiment — and the legislators despised Catholic competition. Now, public schools are a religion-free zone, and Blaine amendments are wielded as a club to block religious access even to otherwise entirely neutral government programs. Not even the bigot Blaine would approve.

The lower courts ruled against Trinity Lutheran, with the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals noting that Missouri didn’t have to exclude the church from the program, but that it could if it wanted — in part because of the state’s “long history of maintaining a high wall between church and state.” Yes, because there’s no telling the religious oppression that will occur if Christian kids enjoy the same safety benefits as kids at the public playground down the street. Nothing says “established religion” like a rubberized playground.

#share#Yet Missouri is part of the United States and is governed by the First Amendment — which mandates neutrality in religious matters. Missouri simply can’t decide that it dislikes religion more than other states and then drain its religious citizens of their tax dollars while at the same time shutting those same citizens out of neutral, non-religious programs. The combination of the “high wall” of separation between church and state and the expanding regulatory state creates two classes of citizens — the non-religious who enjoy full access to every government program or opportunity, and the religious whose access even to scrap rubber is restricted because of their faith.

EDITORIAL: Capitulation on Religious-Liberty Laws Is Shameful and Shortsighted

But this is exactly what some on the left want. When you combine cases such as Trinity Lutheran with the far-more-publicized sexual-revolution cases such as Little Sisters of the Poor or Hobby Lobby, you see the profound impact of expanding government in an era of hostility against the faithful. When government grows, there will always be those who say that religion must therefore recede. In the case of the Little Sisters of the Poor, a traditional zone of liberty is snatched away — with the radical Left arguing that the Sisters objections are rooted in a demand for “special favors.” In the case of Trinity Lutheran, even the request for mere equality is too much.

#related#The result is a “heads I win, tails you lose” political philosophy that always leaves religion in retreat. The Left loves the First Amendment — when it’s distorting the Establishment Clause and screaming to “get your rosaries out of my ovaries.” The Free Exercise Clause, by contrast, is a dead letter — as meaningless (in their eyes) as the hated Second Amendment. Indeed, given the tenor of the times, if a lawmaker tried to propose the Free Exercise Clause today, he’d likely face the full wrath of the entire social-justice coalition — from Apple to PayPal to even the NFL.

If Trinity Lutheran can prevail, it will strike a blow for constitutional sanity. Christians pay taxes too, and rubberized playgrounds no more establish a state religion than asking the fire department to extinguish a church fire endorses the Baptist faith. When it comes to faith, If the First Amendment can’t at least guarantee neutrality, it can’t guarantee anything at all.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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