The U.S. Supreme Court delivered a decisive 7-2 ruling in favor of religious freedom this week. In a much anticipated decision to resolve Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, the justices did not disappoint. Writing for the court, Chief Justice John Roberts said “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.”
Dr. Jerry A. Johnson, NRB President & CEO, praised the ruling and called it “yet another breath of fresh air for those who value faith and freedom.” He hopes it will strengthen the message to government officials that they “must respect, not bully, people of faith.”
This case featured a Missouri church-run preschool that was discriminated against in a public playground re-surfacing program by the state of Missouri solely because it is a religious entity. Even though the preschool ranked as a highly qualified candidate for a grant under the program’s rules, the state cited a provision in its constitution – known as a Blaine Amendment – that prohibited it from supplying aid to a religion.
Roberts, whose judgement was sided with by Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito, Elena Kagan, and Neil Gorsuch, highlighted that Trinity Lutheran was not seeking any special entitlement. It simply wished to participate in a public program without having to shed its faith. The court found, “The express discrimination against religious exercise here is not the denial of a grant, but rather the refusal to allow the Church—solely because it is a church—to compete with secular organizations for a grant.” Noting that the church “is a member of the community too,” they found Missouri’s discrimination violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.
Not everyone agreed, however. Justice Sonia Sotomayor produced a stinging dissent, in which she was joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Sotomayor offered an argument for why she believed the majority’s decision was counter to the First Amendment’s prohibition on an establishment of religion. Dismissing the nature of Missouri’s playground program as a general benefit rather than a targeted aid to Trinity Lutheran as a “distinction [that] makes no difference,” she wrote, “Today’s decision discounts centuries of history and jeopardizes the government’s ability to remain secular.”
David Cortman, Senior Counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented Trinity Lutheran before the court, countered Sotomayor’s logic after the ruling. “Equal treatment of a religious organization in a program that provides only secular benefits, like a partial reimbursement grant for playground surfacing, isn’t a government endorsement of religion,” he said. Rather, Cortman praised the court’s recognition of “the commonsense principle that government isn’t being neutral when it treats religious organizations worse than everyone else.”
NRB made a similar case to the court in an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief last year pushing back on this example of government discrimination against people of faith. Moreover, at an April 19 rally on the Supreme Court steps during the oral arguments on this case, Johnson said religious people “are not second-class citizens.”
After the ruling’s announcement, Johnson cited a recent high profile example of what has been perceived as religious discrimination by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) against a Trump administration nominee, and he lamented the “intolerant demands that citizens must bow to liberal secularism to participate in public life.” He hoped this ruling would help send the right message to government agents.
Johnson also thanked President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for their work to make sure Justice Gorsuch was on the bench in time for this case. Gorsuch, whom Johnson noted as “a man with a track record of honoring the Bill of Rights,” and Justice Thomas both wrote concurring opinions that offered qualifying comments on behalf of even stronger language to honor the Free Exercise clause.
PHOTO ABOVE: NRB President & CEO Dr. Jerry A. Johnson speaks at a rally on April 19, 2017, outside the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C., as the high court hears oral arguments in the case of Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer.
By Aaron Mercer, Vice President of Government Relations