Supreme Court Favors Trinity Lutheran Church 7-2 in Religious Freedom Case

FILE - In this Jan. 26, 2016 file photo, the empty playground at Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Mo. The Supreme Court has ruled that churches have the same right as other charitable groups to seek state money for new playground surfaces and other non-religious needs. The justices on Monday, June 26, 2017, ruled 7-2 in favor of Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Missouri.

By Liberty McArtor Published on June 26, 2017

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favor of Trinity Lutheran Church Monday. Oral arguments for Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer were held in April. The case was seen as an important test regarding the future of certain rights for churches. 

It began when Trinity Lutheran Church in Missouri applied for a state grant program. The church was denied despite being qualified. Missouri cited a law that state funds could not help “any church, sect, or denomination of religion.”

‘Triumph’

Russell Moore called Monday’s decision a “triumph for religious freedom.” Moore leads the Southern Baptists’ Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. “All Americans should celebrate this win for the First Amendment,” he tweeted.

“This case will have profound implications for years to come,” Moore added in an ERLC video. He said the court recognized “the difference between a government supporting a religion and … treating all people fairly.”

“The court got this one right, and so we should be thankful to God for that.”

The Heritage Foundation tweeted the decision showed states “they may not discriminate against churches.”

In a press release, religious liberty group Becket Fund also praised the decision. Becket attorney Hannah Smith called the decision “good for kids and good for religious liberty.” She said it was significant because seven justices agreed “churches can’t be treated as second-class citizens.” The Becket Fund supported Trinity Lutheran Church with a friend of the court brief.

Background

In 2012, Trinity Lutheran Church applied for a state program that provides scrap tires to nonprofits. The scraps soften playground surfaces, making them safer. Trinity Lutheran runs a preschool, but most attendees do not attend the church. The school’s playground is also open to children in the community.

The state still denied the church’s application, citing a state law that said religious groups could not receive state funding. Religious freedom group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) sued Missouri on behalf of Trinity Lutheran.

In April, Missouri Governor Eric Greitens reversed the policy. Coming just one week before the case went before the Supreme Court, the move was a surprise. Some wondered whether it would make the case moot. But both Missouri’s Attorney General and ADF asked for the case to go forward. ADF’s Kerri Kupec said the issue was about a church’s right to a “public safety benefit program.”

“We wouldn’t say to a yeshiva or mosque or a parochial school or a temple that they can’t call the fire department,” Kupec said, according to the Missourian.

The Court’s Opinion

Chief Justice John Roberts penned the official opinion. He wrote that Missouri’s “policy violated the rights of Trinity Lutheran under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment by denying the Church an otherwise available public benefit on account of its religious status.”

He further called the policy “odious to our Constitution.”

Trinity Lutheran was the first religious liberty case heard by Justice Neil Gorsuch. President Donald Trump nominated Gorsuch in January. He was confirmed by the Senate in April. Trinity Lutheran oral arguments occurred shortly after his confirmation.

His vote in the case was highly anticipated by conservatives. Many voted for Trump because of his promise to nominate a justice dedicated to religious liberty. Gorsuch joined the opinion favoring Trinity Lutheran Church. Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg were the only two who dissented.

 

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Justice Neil Gorsuch was nominated in February.

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