The liberty principle for this Freedom Friday concerns a religious freedom case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court heard arguments in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Pauley on Wednesday, April 19, 2017. The case was brought in an effort to determine how far governments can go in banning public funding for organizations affiliated with religions.
Missouri has a program to install rubber surfaces made from recycled tires to soften the landing for any children who fall on playgrounds. Trinity Lutheran Church runs a preschool with a playground. The great majority of the students are not members of the church, and the playground is open to the public when the school is not in session. Trinity Lutheran Church applied for the resurfacing funds and was denied in 2012. Their application was denied even though it ranked fifth out of forty-five applications and met the requirements.
Missouri cited a provision in the state constitution – the Blaine Amendment. Trinity claims that granting the funds would not violate the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause. In case you are not aware, this clause prohibits the government from showing preferential treatment to any religion – whether for or against. The church also claims that the rejection of their application violates the freedom of religion clause in the First Amendment as well as the Equal Protection Clause. Missouri Governor Eric Greitens, a former Navy SEAL, recently announced that state funds will now be available for religious organizations, seemingly admitting Missouri was wrong to deny the funds.
Fred Lucas discusses “4 Big Questions About the Supreme Court’s New Religious Freedom Case” in his article at The Daily Signal. The “four key questions” come from legal experts on both sides of the case and are as follow.
1. “What is the impact of the governor’s decision?” Alex Luchenitser, general counsel for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, says that it makes “the case moot” and “deprives the U.S. Supreme /court of making a real ruling. Other experts say that the case can continue if the church seeks damages. The Governor’s decision gives the high court “more options.”
2. “How will the case affect other `Blaine Amendments?’” Missouri is only one state among 37 with Blaine Amendment restrictions on the use of public money in their constitutions. A narrow ruling might not affect the other states or even the Missouri law.
3. “What’s the legal precedent?” The case may be a simple one as “several legal precedents that clearly prevent a religious believer from choosing between his or her faith and a state benefit.” An example given is denying unemployment benefits because an unemployed person is a Seventh-day Adventist. The application was denied simply because Trinity is a church, and the high court has previously said that churches should “be eligible for grants that are available for everyone else.” The case may not be simple because the Court has previously ruled “that Washington state can prohibit state-funded scholarships from going to students pursuing theology degrees.”
4. “What should we expect from Gorsuch?” Justice Gorsuch ruled on three freedom of religion cases while a judge on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. Two of the cases were the Hobby Lobby case and Little Sisters of the Poor case, which “challenged the Obamacare mandate that employers pay for birth control and abortion-inducing drugs for employees. Gorsuch sided with the employers in both cases. The third case was Yellowbear v. Lampert, and “Gorsuch ruled in favor of an inmate who said prison officials denied his religious freedom by not accommodating his Native American faith. The current case may be new territory for Gorsuch because it is about funding. Although he supports religious liberty, Gorsuch will most likely hear the arguments and then make a decision.
The Trinity case could have major implications on religious liberty, either strengthening or weakening it. I hope and pray that the Justices will make the correct decision.