With Trump pick aboard, top U.S. court
tackles religious rights
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[April 18, 2017]
By Andrew Chung
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme
Court is set this week to hear a closely watched case testing the limits
of religious rights, and new Justice Neil Gorsuch's judicial record
indicates he could tip the court toward siding with a church challenging
Missouri's ban on state funding of religious entities.
Trinity Lutheran Church, which is located in Columbia, Missouri and runs
a preschool and daycare center, said Missouri unlawfully excluded it
from a grant program providing state funds to nonprofit groups to buy
rubber playground surfaces. Missouri's constitution prohibits "any
church, sect or denomination of religion" from receiving state taxpayer
Gorsuch, who embraced an expansive view of religious rights as a
Colorado-based federal appeals court judge, on Monday hears his first
arguments since becoming a justice last week. He will be on the bench on
Wednesday when the justices hear the Trinity Lutheran case, one of the
most important of their current term.
Gorsuch, appointed by President Donald Trump, restored the Supreme
Court's 5-4 conservative majority.
Trinity Lutheran wanted public funds to replace its playground's gravel
with a rubber surface made from recycled tires that would be safer for
children to play on.
The U.S. Constitution calls for a separation of church and state and
guarantees the free exercise of religion.
At the very least, a victory for Trinity Lutheran would help religious
organizations nationwide win public dollars for certain purposes, such
as health and safety.
But it also could bolster the case for using public money for vouchers
to help pay for children to attend religious schools rather than public
schools in "school choice" programs backed by many conservatives. For
example, Colorado's top court in 2015 found that a Douglas County
voucher program violated a state constitutional provision similar to
Trinity Lutheran's legal effort is being spearheaded by the Alliance
Defending Freedom conservative Christian legal activist group, which
argues Missouri's policy violates the U.S. Constitution's guarantees of
free exercise of religion and equal protection under the law.
If the church wins, "religious organizations cannot be excluded from
general public welfare benefits that apply to everybody," said Erik
Stanley, an alliance lawyer representing the church.
Referring to Gorsuch, Stanley said, "He has definitely been a friend of
religious liberty. So we are hopeful that will continue when he's on the
court, and we're grateful he gets to participate on this important
In 2013, Gorsuch sided with the evangelical Christian owners of
arts-and-crafts retailer Hobby Lobby and allowed owners of private
companies to object on religious grounds to a provision in federal
healthcare law requiring employers to provide medical insurance that
pays for women's birth control.
Gorsuch wrote in a concurring opinion that Hobby Lobby's owners faced a
choice "between exercising their faith or saving their business." The
Supreme Court later affirmed the ruling.
Missouri said there is nothing unconstitutional about its grant program.
[to top of second column]
President Donald Trump speaks before the swearing in of Judge Neil
Gorsuch as an Associate Supreme Court Justice in the Rose Garden of
the White House in Washington, U.S., April 10, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua
The church has drawn support from the religious community including
the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Mormon Church and
'OPEN THE FLOODGATES'
Groups filing legal papers opposing Trinity Lutheran, including the
American Civil Liberties Union, said government funding of churches
is precisely what the Constitution forbids.
"Forcing states to provide cash to build church property could open
the floodgates to programs that coerce taxpayers to underwrite
religion," said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU's program on
freedom of religion and belief.
Mach said three-quarters of the U.S. states have provisions like
Alliance Defending Freedom, which also opposes gay marriage,
transgender protections and abortion, has another major case
involving religion that the Supreme Court could take up in its term
beginning in October. It represents a Colorado bakery's Christian
owner who argues the Constitution's promise of religious freedom
means he should not have to make a wedding cake for a gay couple.
Trinity Lutheran sued in federal court in 2012. The St. Louis-based
8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2015 upheld a trial court's
dismissal of the suit. The appeals court said accepting the church's
arguments would be "unprecedented," noting the Supreme Court's 2004
decision in the case Locke v. Davey that upheld a bar on Washington
state scholarships for students preparing for the ministry.
The justice who Gorsuch replaced, the late fellow conservative
Antonin Scalia, was one of two dissenters in the Locke ruling. When
a state withholds a generally available benefit solely on religious
grounds, it is like an unconstitutional "special tax" on religion,
Judicial observers have described Gorsuch as very much in the mold
Missouri's grant program was meant to keep tires out of landfills
while also fostering children's safety. The church's brief to the
high court stated, "A rubber playground surface accomplishes the
state's purposes whether it cushions the fall of the pious or the
"Trinity Lutheran remains free, without any public subsidy, to worship,
teach, pray and practice any other aspect of its faith however it
wishes. The state merely declines to offer financial support," the state
said in legal papers.
(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)
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