Playgrounds, Federalism, and the future of Public Schools

On Wednesday, the U.S. is set to hear a Trinity Lutheran v Comer, involving a Columbia church but having national and far reaching implications. The tension between religious freedom, the establishment of religion and aid to church-related schools have been simmering in the United States since the 1960s. Organized religions and political interests can shift quickly on this issue.

Even for Solomon, this case is hard to decide. As I understand it, the issue for the Supreme Court is whether the U.S. constitution overrides Missouri’s, and 22 other states, “Blaine Amendments,” that prohibits expending state funds to religious organizations. The specifics of the Trinity Lutheran case involved recycled tires for use on a playground but judicial policymaking,  having the precedent setting power that evolved over the years,  is expected to affect the future of public education funding being shifted to private school. Whether that is a good or bad thing probably has more to do with the justices’, and your, political views than a careful, disinterested reflection of constitutional democracy.

  I first learned about the Blaine Amendment in about 1995 and have discussed it with dozens of people, few of whom knew of it but were sure of their school choice politics.  As for me, this is a toughie, a toss-up. I want to a cheer for a vibrant federalism where states differ on public policies (e.g. death penalty, decriminalization of marijuana, gun control, school choice, etc.) but what I see is few people really being committed to federalism as a principle but rather arguing for whatever is political expedient. My hunch  is that most liberals would favor NOT granting Trinity Lutheran playground funds but want the Supreme Court to stay out of the legalization of marijuana debate; similarly conservatives are hoping for state money for a church-related playground but don’t want the Supreme Court to get involved in gay issues. 

It seems the more likely outcome is, with newly sworn-in Justice Neil Gorsuch, the Supreme Court will reduce the importance of state constitutions in the name of free exercise of religion.

Below are some links to thought-provoking articles:

 (Tribune article is

Missouri Catholic Conference

Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty

George Will “Church, State, and Scraped Knees Collide in Court”

Black Christian News Network


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