The Supreme Court’s four big announcements today on religion

Supreme Court

WASHINGTON – For all those who care about how the law of the land relates to religion in America, Monday was a huge morning at the Supreme Court. Here are the four cases, all related to religion, that the court made announcements about on Monday.

– States can’t discriminate against religious institutions when it comes to funding for public safety.

In Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, the court took on a major question about the separation of church and state: Can a state ban any funding to a religious institution in order to keep the two realms separated? The court’s answer Monday, in at least a limited context, was no.


The state of Missouri had told the Trinity Lutheran Church preschool that the state couldn’t pay for the preschool’s safer playground surfacing, because the state banned funding any church. The court said on Monday that the state’s decision amounted to discrimination against the church just for being a church, calling it “odious to our Constitution.”

Some advocates for religious schools had hoped the court’s ruling in this case would open the door to public funding in more states for vouchers for students to attend private religious schools. But the court’s opinion Monday suggested in a footnote that the decision should be interpreted narrowly: “This case involves express discrimination based on religious identity with respect to playground resurfacing. We do not address religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination.”

Justices Neil M. Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas wrote in their own opinions that they disagreed with that footnote and said the opinion should apply more broadly. Justice Stephen Breyer, who concurred with the majority decision, emphasized the narrow interpretation, saying the public benefit of the playground program was the important issue at hand.

Two justices, Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, dissented in the 7-to-2 decision. “To hear the Court tell it, this is a simple case about recycling tires to resurface a playground. The stakes are higher,” Sotomayor wrote. “This case is about nothing less than the relationship between religious institutions and the civil government – that is, between church and state. The Court today profoundly changes that relationship by holding, for the first time, that the Constitution requires the government to provide public funds directly to a church.”

– The court will decide whether a baker must make a cake for a gay wedding.

Bakers, photographers, florists, pizza shops – vendors in numerous states have found themselves at the center of media attention and legal drama after refusing to provide their services for gay weddings, usually because they say same-sex marriage goes against their religious beliefs. For the first time, the Supreme Court will decide whether these business operators have to accept gay clientele.

The court said Monday that it will hear next term the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop, a Colorado bakery that refused the business of a gay couple in 2012.

In New Mexico, Washington and Colorado state courts, judges have ruled that businesses that provide public accommodations can’t discriminate against gay customers, regardless of the owners’ religious beliefs. Public opinion on the question is split: In a 2016 Pew Research Center poll, 48 percent of respondents said business owners should be able to refuse to serve gay clients if they have religious objections to homosexuality.

– State officials must list both parents on the birth certificates of same-sex couples’ children.

To lawyers representing the state of Arkansas, it was a question of science: The state’s law automatically listed a woman’s husband on the birth certificate of her child (regardless of whether he was the biological father of the child) but did not list a woman’s wife on her child’s birth certificate. “In the overwhelming majority of cases, the mother’s husband is a marital child’s biological father,” state lawyers wrote, defending the law.

To many religious communities, the question of whether two same-sex people can or should be the parents of a child is a question of faith.

But to the Supreme Court, as of Monday, it’s a question of rights. The court ruled that the rights of marriage, which it guaranteed equally to straight and gay couples in 2015’s landmark Obergefell v. Hodges, include the right to have both partners in the marriage listed on the child’s birth certificate. The court struck down the Arkansas law.

– President Donald Trump’s travel ban affecting six majority-Muslim countries can go into effect, with some limits.

The court announced Monday that it will hear a case challenging President Trump’s executive order suspending entry into the United States from six majority-Muslim nations – but in the meantime, a limited version of the travel ban, which had been put on hold by prior judges, can take effect.

This means residents of Libya, Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen and refugees from any country are temporarily barred from entering the United States, unless they have “a bona fide relationship” with an American person or institution, such as a relative they are visiting or a U.S. university that they’ve been admitted to study at.



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