February 22, 2019

Why This Christian School Is Taking an 8-Year Legal Battle to the U.S. Supreme Court

Sarah Kramer

In 2010, Tree of Life Christian Schools purchased a new building in Upper Arlington, Ohio to consolidate its four campuses and expand. Sounds simple, right? Yet almost nine years later, its building remains practically unused. Now, Tree of Life finds itself knocking on the door of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Here’s what happened.

Tree of Life Christian Schools was founded more than 40 years ago and is sponsored by seven churches in the Columbus, Ohio area. Its mission is "to glorify God as we educate in His truth and disciple in Christ.”

As the school grew, it became more difficult for Tree of Life to fulfill its mission with several different campuses. It could not take on more students due to space restraints and could not make much-needed technological upgrades. It is also challenging for families to transport children of different grade levels to and from multiple campuses.

So the school began searching for a new building, reviewing over 20 potential sites. Eventually, it found a vacant building in Upper Arlington, Ohio that had previously served as a headquarters for AOL. With a few modifications, the building would work perfectly as a school. In 2010, Tree of Life finalized the purchase.

But the City wasn’t happy with the use of the site for a Christian school.

Upper Arlington officials denied zoning approval for the school. This was odd considering that the zoning code allowed for daycare facilities and other nonprofit uses of the buildings in that area. The only difference is that Tree of Life is a Christian school rather than a secular nonprofit.  

Federal law prohibits the government from using its zoning codes to single out religious institutions and treat them worse than everyone else.

But for eight long years, the City has blocked this Christian school from using its own building!

It’s time for the discrimination to stop.

That’s why Alliance Defending Freedom has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear Tree of Life’s case.

The City of Upper Arlington’s actions, and the ensuing legal battle, has left Tree of Life still operating out of separate and overcrowded campuses, forcing it to turn away students because it lacks the space.

If the City allowed Tree of Life to use the building that it already owns, the school could double in size, enrolling around 1,200 students. Not to mention that the school could expand its workforce to about 150 positions.

Why wouldn’t Upper Arlington want to encourage that?

The City has claimed that it denied the school because the school would not generate sufficient tax revenue for Upper Arlington. But if the school were to relocate to Upper Arlington, it would actually provide greater tax revenue for the city – tax revenue it hasn’t received from the vacant site in years.

As ADF Senior Counsel Erik Stanley so aptly put it: “No city should use its zoning laws to engage in religious discrimination under the guise of maximizing tax revenue.” Federal law prohibits that.

On top of that, the U.S. Supreme Court has already made it clear in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer that the government cannot treat religious organizations worse than everyone else. To do so is “odious to our Constitution,” the Court said. Perhaps Upper Arlington officials should brush up on the Supreme Court’s decisions.

Please join us in praying that the justices decide to hear this case. Then perhaps Tree of Life could open the doors of its school to more students, instead of being forced to turn them away.


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We continue this month with our “A Vision for Freedom” series, highlighting ADF’s “Generational Wins” initiative. Generational Wins are significant legal and cultural victories, rooted in the truth of Scripture, that can change the trajectory of law and culture for decades. Generational Wins encapsulate five strategic goals that, with God’s help, will make a lasting impact on our country now and in the future. Click here to read about the Generational Wins we’re working to achieve together.

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