Americans who are concerned about religious liberty have reason for hope in light of two announcements from the United States Supreme Court on Monday. First, the Court announced its 7–2 decision in favor of a Christian preschool in the first religious liberty case the court has considered since Justice Neil Gorsuch took his seat on the nation’s highest bench. The Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer case considered whether the state of Missouri violated the U.S. Constitution when it denied a preschool (operated by Trinity Lutheran Church) the right to apply for a state grant for playground equipment purely because the school was religiously-affiliated.
The Court ruled that the state “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,” noting that this decision was in line with the Court’s habit of “repeatedly [confirming] that denying a generally available benefit solely on account of religious identity imposes a penalty on the free exercise of religion.” The majority opinion went on to call “the exclusion of Trinity Lutheran from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, solely because it is a church, … odious to our Constitution,” saying that such a practice “cannot stand.”
Chief Justice John Roberts, who was joined in full by Justices Kennedy, Alito and Kagan, authored the June 26 decision. Justices Thomas and Gorsuch joined the majority decision in part. Justice Breyer filed a concurring opinion, while Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg dissented from the majority.
“The Supreme Court’s decision today affirms the commonsense principle that government isn’t being neutral when it treats religious organizations worse than everyone else,” said Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) Senior Counsel David Cortman, who argued before the Supreme Courton behalf of Trinity Lutheran Church in April. “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. As the Supreme Court rightly found, unequal treatment that singles out a preschool for exclusion from such a program simply because a church runs the school is clearly unconstitutional.”
The Court also announced Monday that it will hear another important religious freedom case, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. In 2012, Jack Phillips, a Colorado small business owner who is represented by ADF, declined to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple’s ceremony. The customers filed a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which eventually ruled against Phillips. In 2015, that same Commission found that three other cake artists were innocent of similar violations despite their refusal to provide cakes that reflected religious opposition to same-sex marriage. The United States Supreme Court will consider whether the Colorado Court of Appeals was right to affirm the Commission’s decision and order Phillips to create cakes that violate his religious beliefs, to re-educate his staff in compliance with Colorado’s Anti-Discrimination Act, and to file quarterly “compliance” reports for two years. For more details, see ADF’s case information page.