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Religious Liberty

Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer - Post-Argument SCOTUScast

SCOTUScast 4-28-17 featuring Hannah C. Smith
Hannah C. Smith April 28, 2017

On April 19, 2017, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer. The Learning Center is a licensed preschool and daycare that is operated by Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc (Trinity). Though it incorporates religious instruction into its curriculum, the school is open to all children. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) offers Playground Scrap Tire Surface Material Grants to organizations that qualify for resurfacing of playgrounds. Trinity’s application for such a grant was denied under Article I, Section 7 of the Missouri Constitution, which reads “no money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, section or denomination of religion.” Trinity sued, arguing that DNR’s denial violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the First Amendment’s protections of freedom of religion and speech. The district court dismissed for failure to state a claim. Trinity moved for reconsideration, amending its complaint to include allegations that DNR had previously funded religious organizations with the same grant, but the district court denied again. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit upheld the decision, agreeing with both the dismissal and denial of motions.

The question before the Supreme Court is whether the exclusion of churches from an otherwise neutral and secular aid program violates the Free Exercise and Equal Protection Clauses when the state has, according to the petitioner church, no valid Establishment Clause concern.

To discuss the case, we have Hannah C. Smith, who is Senior Counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

Courthouse Steps: Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer - Podcast

Religious Liberties Practice Group Podcast
Ilya Shapiro, Hannah C. Smith April 21, 2017

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) denied a Learning Center run by Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. (Trinity) federal funding to refurbish children’s playgrounds on the grounds of religious affiliation. The DNR offers Playground Scrap Tire Surface Material Grants to organizations that qualify for resurfacing of playgrounds. Though the licensed pre- school Learning Center incorporates religious instruction into is curriculum, the school is open to all children. Trinity’s Learning Center was denied funding based on Article I, Section 7 of the Missouri Constitution; the section reads: “no money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, section or denomination of religion.”

Trinity claimed that the DNR infringed upon their rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the First Amendment’s protections of freedom of religion and speech. The district court dismissed Trinity’s allegations, claiming that Trinity failed to file a specific claim. Trinity responded by amending its complaint to an allegation that other religious institutions had previously received the DNR funding; nevertheless, the district court denied the motions. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court decision, agreeing with both the dismissal and denial of motions.

The question at the heart of the case is whether or not the First Amendment’s free exercise of religion and the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause protect religious institutions from discrimination regarding the distribution of public funds. Ilya Shapiro of the CATO Institute and Hannah C. Smith of The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty joined us after oral arguments to discuss the case and the potential weight of the precedent set by decision. 

Featuring:

  • Ilya Shapiro, Senior Fellow in Constitutional Studies, Cato Institute
  • Hannah C. Smith, Senior Counsel, The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

Trinity Lutheran Church v. Pauley: Churches, Playgrounds, & the First Amendment

Short video featuring Richard Garnett
Richard W. Garnett April 12, 2017

Does the exclusion of a church-run education center from receiving state funding violate the Free Exercise and Equal Protection Clauses? Prof. Richard Garnett of the University of Notre Dame Law School explains the issues at stake in the upcoming Supreme Court Case of Trinity Lutheran Church v. Pauley. Oral argument is April 19, 2017.

Advocate Health Care Network v. Stapleton - Post-Argument SCOTUScast

SCOTUScast 4-6-17 featuring Eric Baxter
Eric Baxter April 06, 2017

On March 27, 2017, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Advocate Health Care Network v. Stapleton, which is consolidated with Saint Peter’s Healthcare System v. Kaplan and Dignity Health v. Rollins. The Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) requires that employee retirement plans contain certain safeguards, but exempts “church plan[s]” from these requirements.  Under 29 U.S.C. 1002(33)(A), the term “church plan” means “a plan established and maintained… by a church or by a convention or association of churches which is exempt from tax….” After a controversy involving an Internal Revenue Service determination that the church plan exemption did not encompass pension plans established and maintained by two orders of Catholic sisters for the employees of their hospitals, Congress amended the statute to add subsection (C), which provides: “A plan established and maintained for its employees (or their beneficiaries) by a church or by a convention or association of churches includes a plan maintained by an organization, whether a civil law corporation or otherwise, the principal purpose or function of which is the administration or funding of a plan or program for the provision of retirement benefits or welfare benefits, or both, for the employees of a church or a convention or association of churches, if such organization is controlled by or associated with a church or a convention or association of churches.”

Plaintiffs in this case are a group of employees who work for Advocate Health Care Network (Advocate) and are members of Advocate’s retirement plan. Advocate is affiliated with a church, though it is not owned or financially operated by the church. Plaintiffs sued Advocate, arguing that the Advocate retirement plan is subject to ERISA, and therefore, by failing to adhere to ERISA’s requirements, Advocate has breached its fiduciary duty. Defendants moved for summary judgment, but the district court denied the motion because it determined that a plan established and maintained by a church-affiliated organization was not a church plan within the meaning of the statutory language. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed.

The question now before the Supreme Court is whether the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974's church-plan exemption applies so long as a pension plan is maintained by an otherwise-qualifying church-affiliated organization, or whether the exemption applies only if, in addition, a church initially established the plan.

To discuss the case, we have Eric Baxter, who is Senior Counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

All Falling Faiths: Reflections on the Promise and Failure of the 1960s - Podcast

Practice Group Podcast
Danielle Sassoon, J. Harvie Wilkinson III April 04, 2017

In this warm and intimate memoir, Judge Wilkinson of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, delivers a chilling message. The 1960s inflicted enormous damage on our country; even at this very hour we see the decade’s imprint in so much of what we say and do. The chapters reveal the harm done to the true meaning of education, to our capacity for lasting personal commitments, to our respect for the rule of law, to our sense of rootedness and home, to our desire for service, to our capacity for national unity, to our need for the sustenance of faith. Judge Wilkinson does not seek to lecture but to share in the most personal sense what life was like in the 1960s, and to describe the influence of those eventful years upon the present day.

Judge Wilkinson acknowledges the good things accomplished by the Sixties and nourishes the belief that we can learn from that decade ways to build a better future. But he asks his own generation to recognize its youthful mistakes and pleads with future generations not to repeat them. The author’s voice is one of love and hope for America. But our national prospects depend on facing honestly the full magnitude of all we lost during one momentous decade and of all we must now recover.

Featuring:

  • Danielle Sassoon, Assistant U.S. Attorney, U.S. Attorney's Office, Southern District of NY 
  • Hon. J. Harvie Wilkinson III, Judge, United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit