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Key Supreme Court Cases for Catholics
Neil Gorsuch may provide the decisive vote on a number of major cases before the high court.
By Matthew Bunson
As the newest justice on the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch may provide the decisive vote on a number of major cases before the high court. Here are a few of the most significant cases under consideration:
Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer
The most anticipated of the cases before the Supreme Court for Catholics pertains to Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Missouri, and the denial of a state grant to improve a playground that is used by the entire community. The case has potential implications for the separation of church and state — including the issue of vouchers and tax credits for use at religious schools — and the oral arguments April 19 proceeded despite Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens’ announcement that religious organizations should be allowed to apply for state resources. While the Missouri attorney general’s office recused itself from the case, both sides agreed that the matter should go forward on the logic that governors and state policies can change and that the wider constitutional questions still need to be addressed, especially the constitutionality of the “Blaine Amendment” in place in Missouri and more than 30 other states that prohibits religious groups from receiving state resources. The case was accepted by the court in January last year but was delayed for 15 months after the death of Associate Justice Antonin Scalia.
Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission
At press time, the Supreme Court was set to decide whether to accept one of the most high-profile religious-liberty cases in recent years involving a baker in Colorado who suffered severe penalties for refusing on religious grounds to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. Lower courts ruled that the owners of Masterpiece Cakeshop had violated Colorado’s Anti-Discrimination Act, and the decision was upheld by the Colorado Court of Appeals. Gorsuch may very well prove the key vote in whether the court accepts the case and also in the final decision if it does. He has previously ruled in favor of groups defending their religious liberty, in particular Hobby Lobby and the Little Sisters of the Poor, both cases related to the HHS contraception mandate.
Peruta v. San Diego
Another case the court has been asked to accept is a case that touches on the Second Amendment and whether existing rights to gun ownership for self-defense at home extend to carrying concealed weapons in public. The case has moved up through the courts over the last seven years, and the plaintiffs, California gun owners and the California Rifle and Pistol Association, filed a petition in January asking the Supreme Court to hear their appeal. The plaintiffs argue that it is the fundamental individual right of law-abiding gun owners to carry a firearm for self-protection, even in public. Lower courts, including the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals — considered by many the most liberal in the country — have ruled that the Second Amendment alone does not grant California gun owners the right to carry a concealed weapon in public places and that counties have the right to apply additional tests before granting a gun permit, such as whether the applicant demonstrates good cause.
Hernández v. Mesa
The tragic case involves a 15-year-old unarmed Mexican boy, Sergio Adrian Hernández Guereca, who was shot and killed in 2010 on the Mexican side of the border by a U.S. border patrol agent, in what were disputed circumstances. Hernández’s family sued the agent for damages, but in 2015 the Fifth Circuit appeals court ruled that the family had no standing because Hernández was a Mexican citizen and not protected by the Fifth Amendment under its Due Process Clause or by the Fourth Amendment; the full appeals court unanimously ruled in favor of the agent. Last year, the Supreme Court took the appeal, but it also took up a question as to whether the parents had a constitutional right to sue a border patrol officer. The case was argued before the court in February without any conclusions. It is possible that the case will be reheard with Gorsuch now on board.
Maslenjak v. U.S.
The high court will also deal with this notable immigration case, and the question whether the Sixth Circuit Court erred by holding, in direct conflict with the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the First, Fourth, Seventh and Ninth Circuits, that a naturalized American citizen can be stripped of her citizenship in a criminal proceeding based on an immaterial false statement. Divna Maslenjak of Ohio, an ethnic Serb from Bosnia, lost her U.S. citizenship for false statements about the circumstances that brought her to the country.
The justices will also almost certainly be asked to address several cases making their way through the courts over President Trump’s executive order banning travel from six Muslim-majority countries and also the administration’s decision to strip federal funds from the so-called “sanctuary cities” that refuse to comply with federal mandates to detain illegal immigrants.
Two petitions that might be taken up by the court relate to voter registrations and election integrity. In Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling that federal law could prevent the state of Ohio from scouring its voter registration list. If accepted, North Carolina v. North Carolina NAACP would have the court consider North Carolina’s voter ID law that was blocked by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.
— Matthew E. Bunson, senior editor
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