WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that the government cannot bar churches and other faith-based organizations from a government program simply because of their religious status.

“There is no question that Trinity Lutheran was denied a grant simply because of what it is,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts — writing for the majority in the decision that was issued June 26 — “a church.”

In 2014, after the state of Missouri denied Trinity Lutheran Church’s highly rated grant application for a public-benefit program that provided rubberized surface materials to make school playgrounds safer, the church filed suit, claiming that it had been denied the grant solely because of its religious identity.

In Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, the justices were asked to decide “whether the exclusion of churches from an otherwise neutral and secular aid program violates the Free Exercise and Equal Protection Clauses when the state has no valid Establishment Clause concern.”

The decision underscored the power of the court’s message to Missouri and the 37 other states that have similar constitutional provisions — known as Blaine Amendments, which bar government funds for “sectarian” schools. 

“[T]he 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 … and cannot stand,” read the majority opinion. Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented.

“The case is important because the Supreme Court agreed that government cannot exclude churches and other religious organizations from public benefits solely on the basis that the organizations are religious or ‘sectarian’ in nature,” Teresa Collett, a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, told the Register.

“In the words of the majority, the government violates the Free Exercise Clause when ‘freedom comes at the cost of automatic and absolute exclusion from the benefits of a public program.’ To paraphrase Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion, no government, whether national, state or local, can offer a benefit to the general public, then put up a ‘no churches need apply' sign.”

 

Right Direction

The ruling is a major turning point for religious-freedom advocates, who have appealed to the high court to resolve a number of important legal disputes, from the right of Hosanna Tabor, a Lutheran school, to hire employees that adhered to its religious mission, to the right of Hobby Lobby and the Little Sisters of the Poor to secure exemptions from federal mandates that would force them to violate sincerely held religious beliefs.

“Today’s decision is a landmark victory for religious freedom,” said Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, the U.S. bishops’ point man on religious-freedom issues.

“The Supreme Court rightly recognized that people of faith should not be discriminated against when it comes to government programs that should be made available to all.

“The decision also marks a step in the right direction toward limiting the effects of the pernicious Blaine Amendments that are in place in many states around the country,” added Archbishop Lori in a statement released after the court’s ruling was issued.

“Blaine Amendments to state constitutions, most of which date back to the 19th century, stem from a time of intense anti-Catholic bigotry in many parts of the country,” he said. “We are glad to see the Supreme Court move toward limiting these harmful provisions, which have restricted the freedom of faith-based organizations and people of faith to serve their communities.”

In an interview with the Register, Elizabeth Slattery, a legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, noted that Trinity Lutheran Church “did not directly challenge the state’s Blaine Amendment, but it was clear from the court’s strong language in favor of religious freedom that states need to be careful on how they interpret those laws or they will be struck down in court.”

The legal victory for Trinity Lutheran confirmed the early predictions of analysts, who followed the April 19 oral arguments for the case and concluded that a majority of justices would likely support Trinity Lutheran’s legal argument, even though Missouri’s governor had previously announced that churches could apply for future grant initiatives.

Likewise, few analysts were surprised by the cautious concurrence of Justice Stephen Breyer, who pointed to legal precedents that secured churches’ access to police and fire department services, and the strong dissent of Sotomayor, who argued that the decision ignored the court’s long efforts to uphold the separation of church and state.

“The court today profoundly changes that relationship by holding, for the first time, that the Constitution requires the government to provide public funds directly to a church,” wrote Sotomayor. “Its decision slights both our precedents and our history, and its reasoning weakens this country’s long-standing commitment to a separation of church and state beneficial to both.”

 

Chief Justice’s Footnote

However, while some Catholic leaders and educators had hoped that a victory for Trinity Lutheran would help sweep away legal impediments to government-funded vouchers for inner-city parochial-school students, specialists were cautious about addressing the broader implications of this decision.

For starters, the chief justice, in his majority opinion, appeared to limit the scope of the ruling.

“This case involves express discrimination based on religious identity with respect to playground resurfacing,” said Roberts in a footnote. “We do not address religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination.”

Strikingly, the chief justice’s footnote prompted a dissent from both Justices Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas.

“The court leaves open the possibility a useful distinction might be drawn between laws that discriminate on the basis of religious status and religious use,” wrote Gorsuch. “Respectfully, I harbor doubts about the stability of such a line. Does a religious man say grace before dinner? Or does a man begin his meal in a religious manner?”

“Is it a religious group that built the playground? Or did a group build the playground so it might be used to advance a religious mission?” he wrote. “After all, that clause guarantees the free exercise of religion, not just the right to inward belief (or status).” 

Gorsuch and Thomas had no other issue with the majority opinion, but the footnote skirmish has stirred further discussion from court watchers.

As Collett sees it, Roberts’ footnote was partly designed to contrast the majority’s strong stance against laws or state constitutional provisions that bar churches from a secular public-benefit program based solely on their religious identity with other statutes that prohibit the use of funds for religious purposes, like the hypothetical case of using a state textbook grant program to purchase Bibles for religion class at parochial schools.

“However, Gorsuch is saying that we don’t need to get into how the church will use the government-funded provision, as long as the state’s own interest is secular,” said Collett.

Looking ahead, she believes that the majority opinion will help build the legal foundation for future rulings that will uphold the constitutionality of school vouchers for students at religious institutions.

Thomas Berg, writing for the Mirror of Justice blog, agreed with this assessment.

“[T]his is the first time the court has held that a religious organization, indeed a church, must be included on equal terms in a general program of government funding,” said Berg in a June 26 post.

“[T]his case, relying on the Free Exercise Clause, is an important step in preventing states from singling out religious schools for exclusion from school-choice programs. Most previous decisions had merely allowed equal inclusion of religious entities/persons; Trinity requires it.”

 

Another Religious-Liberty Case

The high court ended its term with the news that it would hear oral arguments in another closely watched religious-liberty case, Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which pits a Colorado Christian baker against a same-sex couple who wanted to order a cake for their wedding reception but were refused because the wedding service violated the baker’s religious beliefs about marriage.

The case will decide “[w]hether applying Colorado’s public-accommodations law to compel the petitioner to create expression that violates his sincerely held religious beliefs about marriage violates the Free Speech or Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment,” according to the high court.

Trinity Lutheran and the Masterpiece Cakeshop case “involve very different legal arguments,” said Heritage Foundation’s Slattery. Yet each lawsuit, whether filed by a church or a Christian baker, challenges the increasingly prevalent “view in America that religious believers need to stay out of the public square or leave their faith at the door when they enter it.”

“That argument was rejected in the Hobby Lobby opinion and now in Trinity Lutheran,” said Slattery.

The question, going forward, she said, is how nine justices will likely apply new legal precedent to a more direct case in which a Christian baker “will go head-to-head with the gay-rights community.”

 

Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor.