A Victory for Religious Freedom

Aug 01 2017
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A Victory for Religious Freedom
The state of Missouri has a nickname. It’s called the Show Me State, based on a Missouri congressman’s remarks at a committee hearing in 1899. It seems that a government bureaucrat was giving long, complicated, and evasive testimony. Representative Willard D. Vandiver from Missouri had had enough. In those days, a person commonly referred to their state as their country. He spoke these words, which would become famous: “Sir, I come from a country that raises corn, cotton, and cockleburs. Your frothy eloquence neither convinces me nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me.”
Missourians have a reputation for a stubborn streak, too. We have all heard the saying “stubborn as a Missouri mule.” The University of Missouri, my alma mater, has mules as mascots for the College of Veterinary Medicine.
A church in Missouri recently won an important religious liberty case. Trinity Lutheran Church objected to a decision by the state government, and asked the federal courts to show them why it was constitutional. Trinity Lutheran was stubborn; they took the case all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States. And they won!
The case began 5 years ago, was eventually argued at the US Supreme Court on April 19 of this year, and decided on June 26 of this year. It was a great victory for religious freedom. Let’s take a closer look.
Trinity Lutheran runs a preschool and day care center. Among their facilities is a playground, which has a coarse pea gravel surface beneath the play equipment. In 2012, Trinity Lutheran sought to replace the pea gravel with a pour-in-place rubber surface by participating in Missouri’s Scrap Tire Program. The program offers reimbursement grants to nonprofit organizations that install playground surfaces made from recycled tires. However, Missouri’s Department of Natural Resources had an express policy of denying grants to any applicant owned or controlled by a church. The Department’s policy was based on the Missouri constitution’s Article 1, Section 7, which has stood for 140 years. So they denied Trinity Lutheran’s application.
Trinity Lutheran sued in Federal District Court, alleging that the Department’s denial of the application violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
The District Court did not agree, and dismissed the suit. The court stated that the First Amendment does not prohibit withholding a benefit on account of religion. In other words, the court said that the First Amendment does not require Missouri to make funds available to Trinity Lutheran or any other church.
Trinity Lutheran was unpersuaded. They took their appeal to a higher court. However, the federal appeals court affirmed the decision of the district court, although on a split decision. Again, Trinity Lutheran was unpersuaded, and took their appeal all the way to the US Supreme Court.
In its ruling, the US Supreme Court overturned the lower courts with a strong 7-2 verdict. Yes, that is correct, there were 5 conservative justices plus 2 liberal justices who formed the majority. To their credit, liberal justices Breyer and Kagan agreed with the conservative wing, which includes chief justice John Roberts.
In the majority opinion, Roberts wrote “the express discrimination against religious exercise here is not the denial of a grant, but rather the refusal to allow the
church — solely because it is a church — to compete with secular organizations for a grant. The consequence (of denying the church) is, in all likelihood, a few extra scraped knees. But 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.” Well said, Justice Roberts!
The First Amendment is special, the very first of our Bill of Rights. It includes our freedoms of religion, speech, assembly, and press. It is crystal clear in its wording: “Congress shall make no law…prohibiting the free exercise of religion”. We are grateful that 7 of our Supreme Court justices saw the clarity in those words too.
Somehow, the Missouri constitution clause went unchallenged for more than a century, until a church preschool took a stand in 2012. They stuck to their guns, and were ultimately vindicated by the US Supreme Court.
Kudos to the Lutherans in Missouri, for taking a stand for religious liberty. We salute you!
Scott S. Kramer is chairman of the Republican Party of Kendall County.

First Posted by the Boerne Star