By a 7-2 majority, the Supreme Court of the United States today reaffirmed that the government may not refuse publicly available benefits to religious institutions on the basis of their religion. In Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, Director, Missouri Department of Natural Resources, the Court held that the State of Missouri violated Trinity Lutheran Church’s First Amendment Free Exercise Rights by denying state grant money for the refurbishing of a playground owned by Trinity—when the denial was explicitly because Trinity is a church. The Court’s decision should have far-reaching implications for other churches and faith-based organizations seeking to use government-provided grant money to advance their charitable efforts.
When is a private religious college a “public accommodation,” and therefore subject to state anti-discrimination laws requiring access? According to a Pennsylvania ruling this year, religious nonprofits should not presume upon any categorical deference by the government in answering this question, based merely on the organizations’ self-identified religious affiliation. Instead, they should be prepared to demonstrate both how their religious identity removes them from public accommodation status and how such religious identity relates to their actions at issue. Religious schools and other nonprofits thus need not panic based on this adverse public accommodation ruling, but they should definitely take note and check their own readiness for such challenges.
On May 4, 2017, the National Day of Prayer, President Trump issued his much anticipated Executive Order titled “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty.” Initial reactions span a wide spectrum, with some calling it meaningless, some warning that it is toxic and will result in dreaded “dark money” for political campaigns, and still others leveraging it as a cry for entire repeal of the nonprofit political campaign ban (sometimes known as the Johnson Amendment) as unconstitutional.