Yesterday, the Supreme Court affirmed what the United States Constitution clearly states: The American people have the freedom to express their religious faith without interference of government.
The High Court did so in an opinion on a case originating out of Missouri in which state officials denied a Christian school the benefit of free playground cushioning material normally given to schools. The denial was based on the fact that the school was identified with a church.
In an opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Court held 7-2 that the “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…. This Court has repeatedly confirmed that denying a generally available benefit solely on account of religious identity imposes a penalty on the free exercise of religion… The exclusion of Trinity Lutheran from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, solely because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution all the same, and cannot stand.”
Newly seated Justice Neil Gorsuch said, in part, the First Amendment “guarantees the free exercise of religion, not just the right to inward belief (or status). And this Court has long explained that government may not ‘devise mechanisms, overt or disguised, designed to persecute or oppress a religion or its practices.’ Generally, the government may not force people to choose between participation in a public program and their right to free exercise of religion. I don’t see why it should matter whether we describe that benefit, say, as closed to Lutherans (status) or closed to people who do Lutheran things (use). It is free exercise either way.”
Unlike lower courts, the Supreme Court does not hand down verdicts, as to the finding of fact, guilt, or innocence, but, rather, renders opinions on how constitutional law is applied in specific situations, as well as whether or not government or private actors have violated the provisions of the Constitution. In this case, it was the opinion of a strong majority of the justices that the state of Missouri did, indeed, violate the free exercise clause of the First Amendment, prohibiting government from in any way interfering with religious expression.
Faith & Action was at the High Court when the Trinity decision came down – as we were when the case was argued on April 19, 2017. This was an important and unambiguous affirmation of religious liberty, but it was only a restating of the obvious meaning of the text. We should all be glad when the Court strengthens something as important as the religious exercise clause of the First Amendment, but it is not the Justices that grant religious freedom to us. Our rights, including the right to worship according to one’s conscience, is given to us by our “Creator” and it is “inalienable.” All the Supreme Court did in this decision is to confirm what is obvious. As we prayed yesterday inside the Court before the opinion was handed down, and as we all should continue to pray, may God use this decision to reinforce the resolve of legislative and executive branches to continuously reinforce and strengthen America’s resolve to acknowledge the God-given right of all persons to pray, worship, and preach as they understand their religion to dictate.
Yesterday’s decision was critically important for more than one reason. As the agreement of the liberal Elena Kagan with the conservative Neil Gorsuch demonstrates, the Justices are not always predictable or hostile towards one another. There are often times when Justices agree with one another across vast ideological divides in order to strengthen what is best about America. Yesterday’s Trinity v. Comer case is another example the best outcomes to an otherwise rancorous debate. Join us in praying for more in the days ahead!
On Behalf of Your Faith & Action Ministry Team,
Mrs. Peggy Nienaber
Vice President of Operations
Faith & Action in the Nation’s Capital