Religious Liberty Victory!

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with Trinity Lutheran Church in Missouri in a major decision in favor of religious liberty. On a 7-2 vote, the Court held that when a church was excluded from a public grant program simply because of its religious character, even though the church’s application was ranked 5th out of 44 applicants (14 were granted), the state violated the First Amendment. Read the full opinion here.

In the Court’s words, “denying a generally available benefit solely on account of religious identity imposes a penalty on the free exercise of religion," and that “it remain[s] a fundamental principle of this Court’s free exercise jurisprudence that laws imposing ‘special disabilities on the basis of...religious status’ trigger the strictest scrutiny." In other words, the government can't exclude religious entities simply because they are religious.  If it excludes religious groups, it has to have a really, really good reason.

This case is not only a great reaffirmation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious exercise, but it has potentially far-reaching implications for other important issues. Central to this case was Missouri’s state constitutional amendment that bars all state funds from going directly or indirectly to religious entities. Commonly known as a “Blaine Amendment”, many other states, including Virginia, have a similar constitutional provision. In recent years, these Blaine Amendments have been the single greatest impediment to expanding education options for parents by preventing initiatives like school voucher programs.

Opponents of school choice have used the Blaine Amendment to stop parents from using their tax dollars to send their kids to a school of their choice because many parents would choose a religiously-based private education. Some analysts are hopeful that today’s Court opinion may provide an opportunity to strike down Virginia’s discriminatory Blaine Amendment once and for all.

Monday's opinion also should provide even greater protection to faith-based entities like charities, hospitals, and universities, many of whom have been coming under increased pressure to choose between their central religious beliefs or continued public benefits. In it's opinion, the Supreme Court repudiated that notion.     

All in all, an encouraging victory for religious freedom!