Activists, Preschoolers Rally for Religious Freedom in Playground Case

Religious freedom is not something to toy with – even on the playground.

On Wednesday, an unusual crowd gathered outside the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. as justices inside heard oral arguments on whether or not a religiously-affiliated preschool can receive government money to make its playground safer for kids. In interviews with MRC Culture, conservative and religious speakers, rallying in support of the school, demanded the media “tell the truth” about the case.

The morning began with bubbles wafting in the air as children sang along to Disney music. Large gold balloons spelling “Fair Play” billowed in the breeze. One little girl next to a plastic slide carried a sign reading: “Make playtime safe again.”

Despite the festive atmosphere on the court’s steps, the reason for the gathering was no cause for cheer. Sponsored by Concerned Women for America, the rally claimed to serve two purposes: to protect kids and to preserve religious freedom. Both are being discussed in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer – a case deemed by rally speakers to be one of the most important the Supreme Court will decide this term.

As Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, announced from the podium, “everyone agrees” that “this is the largest, most seminal and most important religious freedom case” to be argued in the court’s current session.

In 2012, Missouri’s Trinity Lutheran Child Learning Center applied for a state grant to refurbish its playground floor with recycled tire scraps. Although the preschool ranked number 5 out of 44 applicants, it was ultimately denied state money because of its religious association.

As the newly-full bench of justices heard oral arguments, an assortment of conservative and religious speakers explained why the Trinity decision is so vital.

“On this case, the Constitution is very clear,” declared Jerry Johnson, President of the National Religious Broadcasters.

Kerri Kupec, communications director of Alliance Defending Freedom, the legal group representing Trinity, also weighed in.

“The case is important because it’s going to ask the question, ‘Can the government deny people of faith, and their religious organizations, their freedom to participate equally in society?’” she told MRC Culture in an exclusive interview. “The reality is, Trinity Lutheran is not being – they’re not asking for special treatment,” she added. “They just want to be treated like everyone else.”

Concerned Women for America President Penny Nance agreed.

“This is a very important issue for people of faith, no matter what your faith,” Nance told MRC Culture. “We believe that the First Amendment guarantees our religious freedom and it doesn’t mean that any particular group should be singled out for worse treatment.”  

Kupec also stressed the importance of a win for the preschool, saying “a loss would mean that you could see religious organizations losing access to public benefit options” like “police and fire protection.”

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Activists Demand Media ‘Tell the Truth!’

Several of the speakers addressed media coverage of the case in exclusive interviews to MRC Culture.

Rev. Patrick Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition, hoped that the media would “tell the truth” and highlight that the case treats people of faith as “second class citizens.”

Nance was encouraged by the press presence at the rally.

“I hope that the media, and there’s a lot of media here today,” Nance said, “will recognize that this is about our first amendment rights to practice our faith and not be singled out and treated poorly or worse.”  

Kupec elaborated on two points she wanted the media to report.

“Over 90% of the kids who go to Trinity Lutheran’s preschool don’t actually attend the church,” she urged, and added, “this playground is open after hours and on the weekends” as a benefit to the neighborhood and community.

“When the government discriminates against a religious organization, like Trinity Lutheran, they’re not just hurting the safety of the children that attend that school,” Kupec concluded, “but they’re actually hurting the neighborhood and the community around them as well.”

Katie Yoder
Katie Yoder
Katie Yoder is Associate Culture Editor, the Joe and Betty Anderlik Fellow at Media Research Center
Sarah Stites
Sarah Stites
Sarah Stites is a writer and research analyst for MRC Culture.