The separation of preschool and state

In this photo taken Jan. 26, 2016, the empty playground at Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Mo. Justice Neil Gorsuch's first week hearing Supreme Court arguments features a case that's giving school choice advocates hope for an easier use of public money for private, religious schools in dozens of states. The long-delayed argument Wednesday, April 19, 2017, deals with whether Missouri should pay for a soft surface at the church playground. (Annaliese Nurnberg/Missourian via AP)

This week, the Supreme Court will be hearing Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, a case that has rapidly acquired a pivotal role in the debate over the separation of church and state. The church, which runs a preschool known as the Trinity Lutheran Child Learning Center (TLCLC), recently applied for a grant from the state of Missouri to purchase rubber tires as a base for its playground. The school was denied the grant on the basis that it is a religious institution and therefore cannot receive public funding without breaching the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.

As of now, it appears that the Supreme Court will likely rule in favor of the preschool. I believe this ruling should be conditional to account not only for the importance of preserving the separation of church and state, but also for the roles of public and private institutions in American society.

TLCLC is unquestionably a religious institution; the preschool is located in a church and teaches religious principles. On the program’s webpage, it claims to provide opportunities for children “to grow spiritually, physically, socially, emotionally, and cognitively” (https://tlclckids.com/). Those who support the state of Missouri in this case argue that these conditions clearly do not allow for the school to receive public funding, as it would necessitate government involvement in other religious institutions that are running on a low budget. Additionally, some fear that government involvement will result in a display of preferential treatment for one religious institution over the rest. Those who support the school, on the other hand, argue that this is an example of religious discrimination by use of the Constitution for a matter that should be considered a health and safety crisis, according to an NPR report on the matter.

This is a valid point. Government funds are often used to fund responses from police and fire departments in times of safety crises. While an injured child on a playground is not as imminent, it is still a threat. So the school should replace the surface of its playground with a rubber tire base; the only question that remains is where the funding should come from.

In this photo taken Jan. 26, 2016, the empty playground at Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Mo. (Annaliese Nurnberg/Missourian via AP)

The issue is not only that the school is a religious institution, but also that it is a private institution that charges tuition for all of its attendees. Just as private high schools and colleges must fund most of their projects using private fees, so too should private preschools. This way, government funds obtained from taxpayers can be allocated toward public schools that do not receive private funding.

It is, of course, understandable that the American public preschool system does not always have the proper resources to support the early development that all American children require. Because of this, it is quite common for private religious institutions to open preschools that charge more affordable fees than other private preschools. State and federal governments; however, cannot afford to grant funding for infrastructure improvements for all private institutions, or even all preschools. At the same time, some of these preschools cannot update their infrastructure themselves without going into debt or charging higher rates for the families of their attendees.

Therefore, TLCLC should only be granted state funding to rubberize its playground on two conditions. First, the school must allow all children equal opportunities to attend, even if they are not affiliated with the religious beliefs of the institution. Only then can it be ensured that the government is funding a preschool rather than a religious institution. Secondly, the school should open its playground for public use. For example, after school hours, the area could be opened to the town of Columbia, Missouri. In this way, the federal funding would be used to directly influence the general public and minimize the health and safety risks for all children in the area, rather than those of one private religious institution.

The Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer case will prove to be one of the most significant court cases on the separation of church and state in recent years, and its decision will have repercussions for many other debates over the Establishment Clause. The Supreme Court must consider the rights of private and public institutions, as well as the religious nature of the case to pass an educated ruling on this difficult issue.


Alex Oliveira is a staff columnist for the Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at alexandra.oliveira@uconn.edu.