BreakPoint: Supreme Court Victory for Trinity Lutheran

And a Major Win for Religious Freedom

Okay, so government cannot “establish religion.” But can it discriminate against religion? The Supreme Court has decided no.

Yesterday the Supreme Court gave religious freedom advocates a major victory. By a 7-2 vote, SCOTUS ruled that denying a church “an otherwise available public benefit on account of its religious status,” violates the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution.

The decision in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer is great news—and it may be only the beginning.

Here are the basic facts of the case: Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Missouri, operates a licensed pre-school and day-care facility. Its facilities include the type of playground that you and I played on as kids—in other words, scrapes, bruises, broken bones, perhaps a lawsuit waiting to happen.

Fortunately for Trinity Lutheran, the state of Missouri has a program, “Playground Scrap Tire Surface Material Grants,” which provides “funds for qualifying organizations to purchase recycled tires to resurface playgrounds.”

Trinity Lutheran applied for the grant, seemingly meeting the qualifications. But the state of Missouri informed them that such a grant would, in Trinity’s case, violate a provision in the state constitution that “no money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, section or denomination of religion.”

That provision is one of 36 so-called “Blaine Amendments” in state constitutions. These amendments were originally aimed at Catholic schools and born of the now-incredible belief that public schools were a principal instrument in safeguarding America’s Protestant Christian character.

Yes, that’s just a tad ironic.

The church sued the state government, claiming that this kind of singling out of churches violated the Free Exercise of Religion. After all, whatever else the free exercise of religion means, it should, at minimum, mean that you can’t be denied a government benefit available to similar organizations solely on account of your religion.

But remember, the First Amendment reads “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” So while Trinity Lutheran argued the “prohibiting the free exercise thereof” part, the state emphasized the “establishment of religion” part.

In his majority decision, Chief Justice Roberts came down squarely on the side of Trinity Lutheran. He wrote that Missouri law left Trinity Lutheran with a choice: It could “participate in an otherwise available benefit program or remain a religious institution.” While it was free to continue being a Church, “that freedom comes at the cost of automatic and absolute exclusion from the benefits of a public program for which the Center is otherwise fully qualified.”

Inasmuch as the “Free Exercise Clause protects against ‘indirect coercion or penalties on the free exercise of religion, [and] not just outright prohibitions,’” the Missouri law could only be justified if it served a compelling governmental interest in the least restrictive manner.

The state of Missouri failed to meet that standard. As Justice Roberts concluded, “the exclusion of Trinity Lutheran from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, solely because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution all the same, and cannot stand.”

Not only is this decision great news for religious freedom, the Court also agreed to hear the case involving Masterpiece Cakeshop in Colorado, which ran afoul of my state’s anti-discrimination laws by refusing to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding.

A successful outcome in this case would be an even bigger victory for religious freedom.

So let’s pray for that outcome. And let’s not forget to thank God for the Trinity Lutheran victory. As Chuck Colson would remind us, the battle for religious freedom is far from over.

 

 

Supreme Court Victory for Trinity Lutheran: And a Major Win for Religious Freedom

Thank God for this particular Supreme Court ruling. Continue to pray that God grants the justices wisdom in all of their decisions, especially those involving religious liberty cases. Click here to read the ruling in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer.

 

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Resources

The Gospel & Religious Liberty
  • Russell D. Moore, Andrew T. Walker | B&H Publishing Group | June 2016
The Liberty Threat: The Attack on Religious Freedom in America Today
  • James Tonkowich | Saint Benedict Press | July 2014

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  • Steve

    Hopefully, the Supreme Court will continue to find in favor of supporting freedom of religion as is written in the 1st Amendment. I pray that those who wish to try to take away those freedoms will come to the realization that the country was founded on the principles of freedom of religion and that this is not some plot to take away their rights.

    • Scott

      That is a good prayer! It wouldn’t hurt Christian conservatives to better articulate how we intend to work towards that either.

  • jason taylor

    There is more then a little to be said against religious institutions sucking up to the government for subsidies. If it does this once what keeps the government for asking for something back? When you make a deal with the Godfather you can’t count on him only wanting you to provide a convenient burial for his son.

    The Church has always cooperated with the State and not illegitimately as they have overlapping interests. But one must remember the adage that when you sup with the devil you must use a long spoon. The State is not the devil though it can be devilish depending on who is running it at any given time. But the point is accurate enough.

  • AtTheCrossroads

    Let’s pray for the SCOTUS Justices in respect to the Colorado baker case. With Independence Day right around the corner, isn’t it great to know that LGBT’s and their allies can not be required by Govt to celebrate marriage as exclusive to 1-man & 1-woman; and Christians, Muslims, and others can not be required by Govt to celebrate marriage as “anything LGBT’s want to make it” . . . oh, wait a minute, actually that’s what this baker was being required to do. “Liberty and justice for all?”