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In Case You Missed It: 4 Supreme Court Cases Pastors Should Care About

Supreme Court

One focal point of the 2016 election was how the 45th U.S. president would shape the future of the Supreme Court. Evangelicals specifically saw Supreme Court rulings as potentially helping or hurting their ability to carry out ministry, and four Supreme Court cases from this past Monday bear witness to this reality. Here’s a quick explainer on what these rulings are, and what they may mean for the church in America.


Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission: the tension between religious exemptions and discrimination

Reversing its previous decision, the Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case of a baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay marriage, threatening to go so far as to shut down his store if required to by law.

Some evangelicals fear a court-mandated order for the bakery to provide its services to same-sex couples will start the country down a slippery slope where religious organizations could lose their nonprofit status—or possibly even face prosecution—for treating an LGBT person differently in any way because of religious beliefs.

“We need to not only put a spotlight on what’s happening around the world, but we need to put a spotlight on what’s happening here in this country, where Christians are being persecuted but in a different way,” Samaritan’s Purse President Franklin Graham said. “It’s not with a gun or a sword but they’re being forced out of businesses because they do not support the gay-lesbian agenda. It’s over and over and over again across the country where Christians are being singled out, their businesses, because they won’t support the agenda of another group of people.”

However, some Christians have pointed to what they believe is Christian hypocrisy in this argument. Religion columnist and editor Jonathan Merritt recently asked via Twitter whether a cake baker should be allowed to refuse services to an interracial couple based on religious beliefs.

Others have asked how Christians would feel if the situation were reversed and a Muslim baker refused to bake a cake for a Christian wedding.

As the United States becomes more pluralized in its philosophical views, the question emerges of what religious freedom for all looks like. The Supreme Court’s eventual ruling in this particular case could go a long way toward answering that question.


Pavan v. Smith: parental rights in gay marriages

In this ruling, the Supreme Court said Arkansas has a Constitutional requirement to list both parties of a same-sex marriage on the birth certificate. In theory, the Arkansas law is meant to record the biological parents of a child; however, critics of the former Arkansas law say that in heterosexual marriages where a child is conceived by artificial insemination or where one partner is knowingly not the parent, both names are still recorded on the certificate.

In the majority ruling, the Court said “same-sex parents in Arkansas lack the same right as opposite-sex parents to be listed on a child’s birth certificate, a document often used for important transactions like making medical decisions for a child or enrolling a child in school.” The court’s conclusion? They ruled “the relevant state laws unconstitutional to the extent they treated same-sex couples differently from opposite-sex couples.”

This ruling further solidifies the view that LGBT marriages should have the exact same legal protection and rights as heterosexual marriages, including in issues of parental rights.


Trump v State of Hawaii and Trump v International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP): Reviewing Trump’s travel ban

Also on Monday, the Supreme Court ruled both that it would hear President Trump’s case regarding the so-called “travel ban” and would temporarily enforce parts of the ban immediately “with respect to foreign nationals who lack any bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States.” If that sounds vague it’s because, well, it is. What a “bona fide relationship” means is open to a wide amount of interpretation and will undoubtedly provoke multiple points of legal clarification.

Earlier this year, key evangelical leaders pushed back against the ban, voicing their concern over what it might do to hinder the biblical instruction to help those in need. What the most recent decision to enforce parts of the ban means for the church largely depends on where a church community comes down on the issue of refugee immigration. For those who have championed Trump’s ban, this will feel like a victory; however, for churches who have ministries supporting (in some cases even harboring) refugees, some difficult questions could arise regarding the conflict of their religious convictions with this slightly-clarified law. That being said, the Supreme Court could potentially rule the ban unconstitutional when it hears the case in October.


Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer: Implications for the separation of church and state

Trinity Lutheran’s need was simple: to refurbish the rubber surface of their playground. The state of Missouri had a grant specifically designed for this type of need; however, the state denied Trinity Lutheran the grant believing funding a religious institution would be a violation of church-state separation. Trinity appealed the decision all the way up to the Supreme Court, which ruled overwhelmingly in their favor, 7-2. The decision, which seems small, could have very important—and complicated—ramifications for private religious schools in the future.

Some advocates of school choice see this as a significant step forward in making private, religious education outlets affordable. This Supreme Court ruling could potentially be used to open a door to various federal grants normally only provided to non-religious institutions.

However, for years now some school choice advocates have expressed concerns over this. Once government funding enters religious schools, there is a potential for further laws to allow limits on what those religious institutions can do with that funding. In other words, the church-state separation doesn’t just protect the state from religious favoritism, it protects the church from government intrusion. This is why Trinity v. Comer makes some atheists and Christians nervous: They see potential for abuse in the future.

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Josh Pease is a writer & speaker living in Colorado with his wife and two kids. His e-book, The God Who Wasn't There , is available for purchase on Amazon.