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Supreme Court of the United States

After the Election: What Happens to the Church?

October 17, 2017

No matter your political persuasion, the 2016 election will be remembered as one of the most contentious and surprising elections in recent history. Now that the outcome is clear, though, what is the forecast for the constitutional rights of churches, pastors, and religious ministries in the coming days and months? 

There is reason for cautious optimism, but there is also much work to be done to ensure that the Church in America remains free to proclaim and live out the Gospel. Here are some of the issues churches are facing that will be decided in the coming months:


1. Can churches be discriminated against and excluded from government programs or benefits solely because they are religious?


ADF’s Trinity Lutheran Church case is currently pending before the United States Supreme Court and it seeks to answer that question. Justice Scalia’s replacement could have major implications for this important religious freedom case. Indeed, as of now, the Trinity Lutheran Church case is the only religious freedom case on the Court’s docket this term. 

The case is about whether the government can discriminate against a church solely because of its religious status—even discriminating in circumstances that have nothing to do with religion, like a playground resurfacing grant. 

The outcome of the Trinity Lutheran case will have ramifications for the free exercise of religion for a long time to come. There is good reason to hope for a positive outcome, but there is much work to do to prepare for arguments before the high Court.


2. Can the state force church facilities to be used in ways that violate the church’s religious beliefs?


This year we have witnessed two states take the unprecedented step of treating churches the same as commercial businesses and requiring churches to open their changing rooms and restrooms to members of the opposite sex. 

The State of Iowa told its churches that any church service open to the public was subject to its Civil Rights Act that prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Shortly after ADF filed a lawsuit, the State backed down and churches in Iowa are now free from this government intrusion into the church building.

But no sooner did Iowa back down than Massachusetts issued a guidance document, stating that when churches host events that it views as “secular” — like spaghetti suppers — churches are public accommodations and must comply with the state’s new gender identity law. ADF filed a lawsuit against the state officials responsible for enforcing this law and that lawsuit is pending.  

There is reason to hope that we will win, but we must continue to press forward and not let up on this important issue. Churches are not like restaurant and hotels. Rather, they are places of worship and cannot be forced to use their facilities in ways that violate their faith.


3. Can a state force churches to pay for covering elective abortions in their health insurance policies?


ADF continues to push lawsuits challenging California’s requirement that churches include coverage for elective abortions in their health insurance policies. California forgets that churches should not be forced to pay for the taking of innocent human life. The state also forgets that the Weldon amendment in federal law prohibits this kind of discrimination. The federal government has refused to enforce the Weldon Amendment, but a new administration could change that position and help protect the constitutional rights of California churches. 


These are just three of the many issues facing America’s churches following this election. While a federal administration more favorable to protecting religious freedom can make a real difference in these and other issues, neither a newly-elected President nor a newly-installed Congress can fix them all. Nor will those who devalue religious freedom simply give up and go home. They will continue to litigate in the courts and advocate in the culture. That’s why no election is or ever can be the panacea for what ails America. As Chuck Colson once said, we must remember that “salvation does not come on Air Force One.” 


With this perspective in mind, we recognize that we have much work ahead of us to protect the religious liberty of America’s churches. We may find ourselves working in a time when the government is more willing to protect religious liberty, but regardless of the climate, we must continue to work to keep the door open for the spread of the Gospel. Because we know that it is only the Gospel that can truly save and that America’s churches must be free to proclaim that salvation to a country that desperately needs to hear it.

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