Written by Don Byrd
For many Americans, June means beach vacations and school’s out for the summer. For those of us –let’s say, special — folks who obsess over legal issues, June means something very different: Big Supreme Court decisions are on the way!
The U.S. Supreme Court delivers all of its opinions from the previous term by the end of June. And the closer we get to that deadline, the more high-profile, controversial, and contentious rulings are left to be released. The anticipation over each June opinion day is something of a sport in itself for Court observers. (I know, seriously, what is wrong with us?)
This year, the Court’s opinion in the church-state case heard in April, Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, has yet to be issued. Sometime during the next two and a half weeks a ruling will come down. The case involves Missouri’s denial of a church’s application for one of the state’s playground refurbishment grants. The church argues the rejection amounts to unlawful religious discrimination. The state countered that the refusal was due to state law prohibiting government aid to religion.
As I wrote in a follow-up post, the case in some ways raises questions about whether our houses of worship are being secularized to accommodate certain legal arguments. It also explores the limits of state’s abilities to protect against the establishment of religion. How the court handles this dispute – not just the outcome but also the scope of the ruling – could have a significant impact on church-state law.
You want to be ready, right? For a refresher on the issues involved in the case, check out the Baptist Joint Committee’s Trinity Lutheran resource page. The BJC filed a brief with the Court opposing government funding of churches. Holly Hollman explained the case and the BJC’s brief in a short video. She also discussed the case with Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick in her Amicus podcast. You can also find highlights from the Supreme Court’s oral arguments.
The next opinion release day is Monday, June 19. Stay tuned.
But know that it is not just Trinity Lutheran Church we are awaiting. The Court also has taken a very long time (by its standards) to issue its decision of whether to take up the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop. That case involves a shop owner’s refusal on religious grounds to provide cake decorations for a same-sex marriage, despite state law barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Does enforcing the law violate his religious liberty rights under the Constitution? The Colorado Appeals Court said no, and the Court could issue its decision any day now as to whether to hear the cake shop owner’s appeal.
What else is in the church-state case pipeline? Plenty. The Supreme Court may also act soon on whether or not to hear the Justice Department’s appeal of injunctions halting the President’s revised executive order on immigration instituting the so-called “travel ban.” The 4th Circuit ruled that the Establishment Clause prohibited the policy because it manifest an intention to target Muslims for exclusion from entry into the country. The 9th Circuit also ruled against the White House but on different grounds.
Meanwhile, the 9th Circuit on Monday heard oral arguments in a case involving a high school football coach’s desire to pray with his team on the field after games. And the entire 6th Circuit heard oral arguments in yet another case involving legislative prayer after a panel of judges ruled the invocations violated the religious liberty rights of the plaintiff.
You can’t be expected to keep up with all of that on your own, of course. That’s what I’m here for. Follow me on twitter (@BJCBlog), bookmark the BJC blog in your browser, and sign up for updates from the Baptist Joint Committee. A lot of things are happening in courts right now that could impact religious liberty and church-state separation. It doesn’t look to slow down any time soon… Stay informed and engaged!