Published On: Tue, Jun 27th, 2017

Religious Liberty Victory at the Supreme Court

PENEWS – Today is a good day for religious freedom. The U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer. By a 7-2 majority, the Court ruled that government cannot deny faith-based institutions publicly available benefits solely because of their religious status.

As general superintendent of the Assemblies of God (USA), I had a particular interest in this case, because it originated in the State of Missouri, where the AG national office is located. Article I, Section 7 of the Missouri Constitution includes this provision:

That no money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect or denomination of religion, or in aid of any priest, preacher, minister or teacher thereof, as such; and that no preference shall be given to nor any discrimination made against any church, sect or creed of religion, or any form of religious faith or worship.

It goes without saying that neither the Assemblies of God as an institution nor I as a minister support the use of public monies to support the Church’s evangelistic ministry. By the same token, however, local churches and faith-based ministries shouldn’t be denied public benefits simply because they are religious. But that’s exactly what the State of Missouri did.

Here are the facts of the case:

  • In 2012, Missouri’s Department of Natural Resources administered a program that awarded grants to nonprofit organizations to help them install child-friendly playground surfaces made from recycled tires.
  • Like many churches in Missouri, Trinity Lutheran operated a preschool and daycare center, and it applied for a grant.
  • Despite ranking 5th among 44 grant applicants, Trinity Lutheran’s grant was denied because of Article I, Section 7 of the Missouri Constitution.

The facts revealed that the preschool and daycare center was denied a public benefit solely because it was operated by a church. It didn’t matter that the grant was for a secular purpose—a child-friendly playground using recycled tires. And it didn’t matter that Trinity Lutheran ranked high on a scale that factored in the poverty of the children being served by the preschool. The only thing that mattered was that Trinity Lutheran was a church.

That logic would put faith-based charities at a distinct disadvantage.

And the U.S. Supreme Court agrees.

In a decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Court held that the State of Missouri violated the Free Exercise Clause of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. Missouri forced Trinity Lutheran to make an awful choice: “It may participate in an otherwise available benefit program or remain a religious institution.”

Summing up the Court’s arguments, Chief Justice Roberts concluded: “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.”

I am heartened by the Court’s decision. Assemblies of God congregations in Missouri and throughout the U.S. are committed to the common good. We long to see our communities thrive and flourish. Toward that end, we engage in numerous charitable enterprises that have secular benefits, even though they spring from religious identity. Now, we can compete for public benefits for which we are qualified without worrying that we will be discriminated against because of our religious identity.

That’s a win for religious freedom as well as for the welfare of the communities we serve.

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