On Will Estrada’s Strange Attempt to Make Trinity Lutheran about Homeschooling

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Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, a case being argued before the Supreme Court this week, hinges on whether public funds can be used to improve church property. The case began when the Missouri Department of Natural Resources declined to give a grant for resurfacing private preschools to The Learning Center, a religious preschool operated by Trinity Lutheran Church, despite ranking its application highly.

In reading an article about the case, I was struck by these comments:

An official for Home School Legal Defense Association spoke directly to that point after the arguments, voicing support for the church.

“We stand with Trinity Lutheran,” said Will Estrada, director of federal relations for the association. “Homeschoolers, by law in most states, cannot access public school playgrounds and campuses and many homeschoolers do not wish to.”

Noting that this situation leads most homeschooled children to use facilities at houses of worship, Estrada questioned why secular preschools should have better playground materials than religious institutions have.

“It’s inherently unfair,” Estrada added. “It’s actually a violation of our constitutional freedoms, our First Amendment rights.”

I want to zero in on this specific statement, made by HSLDA’s Will Estrada:

“Homeschoolers, by law in most states, cannot access public school playgrounds and campuses and many homeschoolers do not wish to.”

This case is not about homeschooling. It is about whether The Learning Center, a religious preschool operated by Trinity Lutheran Church, is eligible to receive a grant from the Missouri government for resurfacing their playground. It is about the use of public funds to benefit religious school. And yet, Estrada makes it about homeschooling. I feel almost impressed by the level of finagling going on here.

Just so we’re clear, Estrada is factually wrong. No state prohibits homeschoolers from using public school playgrounds. Public school playgrounds are typically not available to public during school hours (which makes sense because they are in use during this time), but these facilities are usually available for public use after school hours and when school is not in session. Homeschooled students are not barred from using public school playgrounds, as Estrada suggests.

I live only a few blocks from a public school playground. It is constantly covered in kids after school hours and during the summer—and not only kids who attend there. I know a family that lives a block closer to the school but sends their children to a private school, and they use the playground for their kids’ primary park play—and why wouldn’t they? Here, public school playgrounds are rarely even fenced in. If you live close to a public elementary school, you play on their playground. This was the case the previous place I lived as well—and the place before that.

After reading Estrada’s claims I did some research, and it appears that some communities may limit the public use of these facilities outside of school hours for liability reasons. However, where this occurs it is not targeted at homeschoolers (it applies to everyone, including the students who attend these schools), and there appears to be a push in the opposite direction currently, in an effort to expand children’s playground access in order to combat childhood obesity.

It is possible that, when Estrada stated that homeschooled students “cannot access public school playgrounds,” he was talking about school districts that bar all public use of such facilities for liability reasons. (I was unable to locate a specific state or school district with such a rule, but references to liability concerns limiting access suggests that at least some do, or did at one time.) However, this would be disingenuous of Estrada, because such a prohibition would apply to all children, and not to homeschooled students specifically.

Like Estrada, I was homeschooled. We didn’t live within walking distance of any public school, and there were plenty of other parks with playgrounds to choose from, so I don’t remember ever playing on a public school playground. (If we’d lived close to a public school playground, this would probably have been different.) We usually played in our backyard when taking breaks from our studies during the school day, but we did occasionally have a picnic during school hours. For those we went to an old playground located behind a church, set back beyond its cemetery.

That’s right, I primarily played at a church playground as a homeschooled child. Does that mean Estrada has a point? No. Estrada may have been referring to school hours specifically, when public school playgrounds are restricted to school use only, and to families like mine using church playgrounds during this time. However, any application of this concern to the Trinity Lutheran case is also disingenuous.

Let’s start with Estrada’s comments on such use by homeschoolers:

Noting that this situation leads most homeschooled children to use facilities at houses of worship, Estrada questioned why secular preschools should have better playground materials than religious institutions have.

But now look at this, from earlier in the article that quotes Estrada:

The Learning Center now has an open-admissions policy, and children in the surrounding community use the playground when the school is not in session.

The playground at The Learning Center, Trinity Lutheran’s private religious preschool, is available for public use only after school hours, in the same way as most public school playgrounds. If Estrada meant to suggest that homeschooled students use playgrounds like the one at Trinity Lutheran when they cannot use public school playgrounds because school is in session, he has not read the case. My family could no more have played on the playground at a religious school during school hours than we could have played on a public school playground during school hours.

In arguing that the state should pay to resurface The Learning Center because homeschooled students are allowed to play there after school hours, Estrada has changed the meaning of the case entirely. Privately operated preschools are not required to open their facilities to the public after school hours, and the resurfacing grant in question was never meant to provide any such benefit. The grant is for playgrounds owned by private preschools for the use of their students; the money increases the value of these preschools by improving their facilities.

The question in Trinity Lutheran is whether government grants can be used to improve church facilities. Estrada suggests that the answer is yes because homeschooled students play on church playgrounds because they are barred from public school playgrounds. Thus far I’ve spent this post discussing homeschooled students’ actual access to actual playgrounds, but such a discussion obscures a deeper question—how exactly is homeschooled students playground access relevant to the arguments at the core of Trinity Lutheran? It’s not. At all.

This case is not about homeschooling. Perhaps Estrada missed the memo?

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