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What you need to know about the Supreme Court's latest religious liberty case

POSTED: April 19, 2017 5:10 a.m.
Kelsey Dallas/

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The most high-profile religious liberty case before the Supreme Court in 2017 doesn't have to do with birth control access, same-sex marriage or some other hot-button issue that's typically in the news.

It's about shredded up tires and whether a religiously affiliated preschool has as much right to them on its playground as its secular counterparts.

Trinity Lutheran Church Learning Center in Columbia, Missouri, applied for a state tire chip grant in 2012 in hopes of making its playground safer for students and neighborhood kids who use it. It ranked fifth of 44 applicants, but school administrators were notified that their preschool was ineligible for the program due to a Missouri constitutional provision blocking state funds to religious organizations.

Trinity Lutheran Church sued the state, arguing that this state provision shouldn't trump federal rules related to the free exercise of religion and faith groups' right to equal protection under the law. The resulting case, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columba, Inc. v. Comer, is scheduled to be argued before the Supreme Court on Wednesday, April 19.

For a broad overview of each side's arguments, read Amy Howe's argument preview on SCOTUSblog. She explores how the Supreme Court's ruling could affect more than just Missouri's tire chip program, noting that the case could have repercussions for any future debate over religious organizations' access to public money.

In a separate post, Howe explains an unexpected twist in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer. Missouri's governor announced last week that faith-related organizations will now be eligible for the state programs overseen by the Department of Natural Resources, although he didn't explain the legal justifications for this decision.

The Supreme Court asked lawyers for both sides to submit letters by noon Tuesday explaining how the governor's announcement affects the case. Both sides say it's necessary to move forward because of confusion about the proposed policy shift, but some legal scholars argue that Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer is now moot.

For a quick refresher on the case in the midst of ongoing coverage, check out this video from The Federalist Society. It offers an overview of the underlying laws and legal issues.

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