U.S. Supreme Court Decisions In Religious Freedom Cases Are Imminent

The U.S. Supreme Court is poised to act on several crucial religious freedom cases, all of which Americans United is involved in.

As soon as Monday and certainly by the end of next week, the court is expected to issue a ruling in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, a case that threatens to blur the lines between church and state.

The high court heard arguments on April 19 about whether the church should be allowed to participate in a taxpayer-funded grant program to improve its religious preschool’s playground.

AU filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, arguing that the “no-aid” clause in Missouri’s constitution prevents state officials from offering taxpayer-funded grants to houses of worship. This no-aid clause, a provision echoed in approximately three-quarters of American state constitutions, protects citizens’ freedom of conscience to choose what religious ministries – if any – they will voluntarily support while also protecting houses of worship against discrimination and interference from the government.

A broad ruling by the Supreme Court could require states to ignore their own constitutions and funnel taxpayer money to houses of worship.

Since the justices are about to break for their summer recess, a ruling in the case should come by the end of next week. Less certain is whether the high court will announce next week if it will grant review of Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.

The U.S. Supreme Court is poised to act on several crucial religious freedom cases.

This case involves a Colorado bakery that refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple; the business cited religious beliefs as justification for the discrimination. Colorado’s Civil Rights Commission found that the bakery’s refusal had violated a state antidiscrimination law, and a Colorado appeals court agreed. Americans United filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the appeals court to argue that the First Amendment does not excuse businesses from their obligation to treat all customers equally – even when their desire to discriminate is motivated by religion.

The bakery appealed to the Supreme Court, and the justices have been considering the case all spring. The justices regularly meet in private conferences to discuss whether they will hear arguments in potential cases; for the court to take a case, four justices must vote for review.

The Masterpiece case was relisted for discussion at yesterday’s conference – the 18th conference at which it’s been listed since late December. The online legal publication Law360 reported it’s nearly unprecedented for a case to be relisted so many times – their expert could only think of one case that was relisted more.

Law360’s Dani Kass wrote of several possible explanations for the high court’s delay in announcing a decision. There may not be enough support on the court to review the case and a justice may be writing a dissent to which other justices may want to respond. The April appointment of Justice Neil Gorsuch, who would have needed to catch up on an array of pending cases, could have factored into the delay (we previously noted the impact Gorsuch could have on both the Masterpiece and Trinity cases).

Kass speculated another possibility for the Masterpiece delay could be that the justices are awaiting a petition to be filed in the similar case State of Washington v. Arlene’s Flowers, in which a florist refused to sell flowers to a same-sex couple. The Washington Supreme Court in February unanimously ruled that the florist could not use religion to justify discrimination (in its ruling, the court quoted a friend-of-the-court brief AU had filed in the case; read more about the decision here).

The flower shop is expected to file an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court next month. Kass wrote that the justices could be waiting to review the Arlene’s Flowers request before deciding what to do with Masterpiece.

Finally, the justices are expected to rule soon on whether they’ll grant a stay that would allow President Donald Trump’s Muslim ban to go into effect. Both the 4th and 9th U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal ruled against the ban, and the Trump administration has asked the Supreme Court to review the cases.

AU filed friend-of-the-court briefs in both of these cases – International Refugee Assistance Project v. Trump and Hawaiʻi v. Trump. We argue the Muslim ban is unconstitutional because it discriminates against Muslims and singles them out for disfavor based solely on religion. (You can learn more about our extensive work to oppose the Muslim ban here.)

The justices are expected to rule on the stay request – i.e., whether the ban can go into effect – any day now. It’s less certain when the justices would hear arguments on the cases’ merits, assuming they agree to review the cases.

So, it will be a busy time for the Supreme Court – and a busy time for AU as we continue to fight for religious freedom. Stay tuned to au.org – we’ll bring you updates on these cases and the many other pending challenges to church-state separation.