Debate over Churches Receiving Public Funds for Restoration Goes to Massachusetts Supreme Court. “Massachusetts’s highest court wrestled [on September 7] over whether allowing houses of worship to receive public funds for restoration inappropriately blurs the line between church and state. An attorney for the group of residents who brought the case told the Supreme Judicial Court that the writers of a Massachusetts constitutional amendment clearly meant for active churches to be prohibited from receiving taxpayer dollars in an effort to keep government out of the business of religion. ‘If these words mean anything, they mean the government cannot write a check to help an active house of worship,’ attorney Douglas Mishkin said. The group of taxpayers is challenging more than $100,000 in community preservation grants that Acton Congregational Church intends to use to restore stained-glass windows that include religious imagery and identify other restoration needs. The court is expected to rule within months on the town of Acton’s decision to award the state and local funds to the historic church” (“Church fight: Court eyes worship houses’ use of public funds,” The Washington Post).
Learn more about church and state issues with Pastor, Church & Law.
Trump Sides with Texas Churches Involved in FEMA Lawsuit. “President Donald Trump put himself into the middle of an ongoing lawsuit late Friday [September 8], tweeting support for giving federal aid to Texas churches dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Three Texas churches filed a lawsuit . . . challenging a Federal Emergency Management Agency policy that excludes religious institutions from receiving disaster-relief grants. ‘Churches in Texas should be entitled to reimbursement from FEMA Relief Funds for helping victims of Hurricane Harvey (just like others),’ Trump tweeted Friday night. The three churches, the Harvest Family Church, the Hi-Way Tabernacle, and the Rockport First Assembly of God, ‘are not seeking special treatment; they are seeking a fair shake,’ the lawsuit reads. ‘And they need to know now whether they have any hope of counting on FEMA or whether they will continue to be excluded entirely from these FEMA programs.’ . . . Trump's support for providing Texas churches with federal money is notable given that the lawsuit was filed against his own administration. It is unclear whether the President meant the tweet as a broader call for FEMA to treat secular nonprofits and religious-based groups equally in the disbursement of disaster-relief funds” (“Trump tweets support for giving Texas churches disaster aid,” CNN).
Read more about the lawsuit here.
Department of Justice Files Brief Supporting Christian Baker Who Refused Service to Same-Sex Couple. “In an amicus brief filed in the US Supreme Court on September 7 in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the US Department of Justice sided with the Christian bakery owner who refused to design and create a cake for a same-sex wedding. The brief (full text) argues: ‘Heightened scrutiny is appropriate at least where a law both compels the creation, for a particular person or entity, of speech or of a product or performance that is inherently communicative, and compels the creator’s participation in a ceremony or other expressive event. . . . Public accommodations laws compel expression—whether speech or expressive conduct—when they mandate the creation of commissioned goods or the provision of commissioned services that are inherently communicative. That situation might arise if a public accommodations law were applied to painters, photographers, poets, actors, musicians, or other professional artists. Assuming that those artists offer their creative services to the public, a state might attempt to bar a painter who agrees to paint a custom portrait of an opposite-sex couple at their wedding from declining to paint a same-sex couple, or vice versa. Or it might attempt to bar a freelance graphic designer who agrees to design fliers for the upcoming meetings of a Jewish affinity group from declining to do so for a neo-Nazi group or the Westboro Baptist Church. So long as the artist offers to produce expression for a fee, a public accommodations law might purport to restrict her ability to determine which art she will create and for whom’” (“DOJ Supports Christian Baker in Amicus Brief Filed with Supreme Court,” Religion Clause).
For more on how public accommodations laws affect your church, check out the July/August issue of Church Law & Tax Report.
Emily Lund is Assistant Editor for Church Law & Tax.
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