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Michael Whitehead 816.210.4449                                                      Jonathan Whitehead 816.835.3577   

Equal Access for Churches Upheld by Supreme Court

7-2 Ruling says Mo. Constitution cannot trump U.S. First Amendment

WASHINGTON – June 26, 2017    The U.S. Supreme Court declared Monday, in a resounding 7-2 victory for a Columbia, MO, church, that a state constitution cannot be used to justify a denial of equal access for  a church to a public benefit program, just because it is a church.

Michael Whitehead, a Kansas City attorney who was co-counsel for the Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, MO, along with his son Jonathan and Alliance Defending Freedom, said “The Court held that denying a generally available public benefit solely on account of religious identity violates the free exercise of religion.” 

NOT SEEKING SUBSIDY OF FREE EXERCISE.

“The State argued that TLC was asking the state to subsidize its religious exercise.  The Court disagreed.  The Church was only asking for equal access to a public benefit program, without discrimination just because it is a church.”

“Free exercise does not just protect the right to pray and worship in private.  Free exercise means the right to live out one’s faith in the public square, and to participate fully as citizens, including public benefit programs.”      

Jonathan Whitehead, co-counsel in the case with his father, also sat at counsel table on April 19 during oral argument. Jonathan noted the importance of the concurring opinion by new Justice Gorsuch, who said: “After all, that Clause guarantees the free exercise of religion, not just the right to inward belief (or status).”

CHURCHES DON’T PAY TAXES, SO SHOULDN’T GET BENEFITS.

Jonathan Whitehead noted that churches also pay the “tax” that was at issue in this case: “Missourians, including churches that own vehicles, pay a fee to keep used tires out of streams and landfills. The fee underwrites a rebate for rubber playground surfaces. It’s open to all nonprofit groups, to keep kids safer and the environment cleaner. So it is not accurate to say that churches don’t pay taxes and thus should not receive public funds.”

LIMITS ON BLAINE AMENDMENTS.

Jonathan also commented on the national significance of this case: “State constitutions like Missouri’s cannot be used to justify discrimination against religious citizens who are otherwise eligible to participate in public benefit programs.  About 39 states have similar clauses, so called “Blaine Amendments.”  Trinity Lutheran Church has helped to protect religious freedom for religious citizens in all these states.”

7-2 IS RESOUNDING VICTORY

The Whiteheads said they were especially pleased that the judgment garnered the votes of Justices Kagan and Breyer, who are viewed as being on the Court’s progressive wing.  “ A 7-2 vote is very encouraging about the strength of this principle on the current Court,” observed Jonathan Whitehead.

WIDMAR PRECEDENT IS RE-VISITED 36 YEARS LATER.

Cited in the Trinity Lutheran opinion today was an older case, Widmar v. Vincent, 454 U.S. 263, a 1981 case in which Michael Whitehead was also co-counsel. That case also addressed the Missouri “Blaine Amendment.”  In Widmar, the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in favor of Whitehead’s clients, affirming “equal access” for religious students to use the campus student union for Bible study and worship at the University of Missouri in Kansas City.  

TrinityLutheranPetitionersBrief.pdf
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Michael K. Whitehead | Attorney | Whitehead Law Firm LLC
229 SE Douglas St., Ste. 210 Lee's SummitMO 64063-2301
T: 816-398-8967 | M: 816-210-4449 | F: 816-875-3291
Mike@TheWhiteheadFirm.com | http://www.TheWhiteheadFirm.com

Jonathan Whitehead
http://www.WhiteheadLawLLC.com

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