2017 | Week of July 17 | #1212
Court decisions matter, especially those from our nation’s highest court. No doubt they shouldn’t matter as much as they do these days. Our founders designed a government with 3 branches that are meant to check and balance each other, not one where one branch holds the other two hostage. Thomas Jefferson said of this matter, “[T]he opinion which gives to the judges the right to decide what laws are constitutional and what not, not only for themselves, in their own sphere of action, but for the Legislature and Executive also in their spheres, would make the Judiciary a despotic branch.” Many today, myself included, would contend the US Supreme Court, along with other lower federal and state courts, are dangerously close to being “a despotic branch.” And that’s a major reason why today court decisions really matter.
Even as I hold this opinion, I can still rejoice when a court gets a decision right. Such is the situation with the major religious freedom case that the US Supreme Court issued an opinion on late last month.
The case involved a religious preschool, Trinity Lutheran in Columbia, Missouri that was rejected from a state program that provides reimbursement grants to purchase rubberized surface material—like tire scraps—for children’s playgrounds. The state denied the grant for the Trinity preschool playground because the playground belongs to a religious organization.
Our friends at Alliance Defending Freedom were greatly involved in this case on behalf of the church and in fact argued the case before the Supreme Court in April, shortly after newly confirmed Justice Neil Gorsuch was seated.
Trinity Lutheran’s Learning Center playground has an “open gate” policy. It is used by the preschool students and is open tall in the community. The playground is frequently used by children in the neighborhood after-hours and on weekends. The tire scrap surface project was paid for by Trinity, and then they sought reimbursement from the state’s public grant program set up for this purpose. Out of 44 organizations that applied for the grant, Trinity Lutheran’s application was ranked #5 in meeting all the qualifications but was denied solely because it is run by a church. The state asserted it was correct in denying the grant because of a provision in the Missouri Constitution.
Fortunately, the US Supreme Court got this one right. On a 7-2 vote, the high court correctly affirmed that religious organizations are constitutionally guaranteed the same opportunity to participate in government programs as non-religious groups. In fact, this decision restores vital First Amendment protections that were endangered by court decisions and state laws over the course of many years. While the state government asserted it was showing “neutrality” in its decision not to give Trinity Lutheran the grant, in reality the government isn’t being neutral when it singles out religious groups for discriminatory treatment. In this instance, the court rightly ruled in favor of equality.
Consider if the court had gone a different direction what this might have meant. This case is very similar to a state prohibiting police from responding to a burglary at a yeshiva or parochial school, or a city stopping the fire department from putting out a fire at church or excluding the buildings owned by religious organizations from a statewide asbestos removal program.
Many are hopeful this decision will have some pretty far-reaching consequences, including opening up school choice programs in states that have constitutional provisions similar to Missouri’s.
Over the years this idea of neutrality has morphed into discrimination and less-than-equal treatment on the basis of religion. This decision might signal the return to a proper understanding and application of the First Amendment’s free exercise and establishment clauses.
On the same day the Supreme Court handed down this decision, it also accepted another high-profile case involving a Colorado cake baker who said he wouldn’t design a cake for a same-sex wedding. While the media is making this case about supposed “gay rights,” it’s inherently about religious freedom. This Masterpiece Cakeshop case will test the court’s mettle on this important matter in a different way than the Trinity case did. But for all of us as American citizens, this decision, like the Trinity decision, will matter and we will know a little more about whether we are headed for more or less judicial despotism.
For Wisconsin Family Council, I’m Julaine Appling, reminding you the prophet Hosea said, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.”