SCOTUS and Trinity Lutheran: Should We Celebrate?

The Supreme Court ruled this week that the state of Missouri cannot exclude non-profit, religious  organizations from programs for which secular non-profits are eligible.  The Washington Post has a news story on the opinion here.  According to the Court “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.”

The final vote was 7-2.  The addition of Justice Gorsuch, despite what many on the Left predicted earlier this year, was inconsequential.

I took some heat for my op-ed in the WSJ in which I challenged lawyers and lay people alike to reconsider whether in a working and sane federal system a case such as this should be adjudicated in federal court.  Professor Michael Stokes Paulsen wrote this piece attacking my op-ed and I responded with this blog post.

So, does the Court’s opinion change my mind?  Not in the slightest.  The fact remains that Trinity Lutheran is a Missouri church that challenged the state’s application of a state constitutional provision that prohibited state tax dollars going directly to a in-state religious institution. The state grant program was funded by in-state tire sales. Application of Missouri’s constitution did not result in the establishment of a church nor did it interfere with worship/doctrine.  In a country with a functional federal system, a case like this should be adjudicated in state court.

However, in light of our dysfunctional federal system, the High Court properly applied existing law and precedent to reach the “correct” result.  Unlike most libertarians and conservatives, I’m not in a celebratory mood over a decision that is billed as a great victory for religious liberty.  I feel more like a Soviet worker who has received an extra monthly ration card.  That additional bottle of vodka might go down smooth, but when I wake up I’ll still be a citizen of a corrupt and centralized regime.


William J. Watkins, Jr. is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and the author of the Independent book, Crossroads for Liberty: Recovering the Anti-Federalist Values of America’s First Constitution.

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