BLOGEnd of the Term at the Supreme Court: Four Cases We’re Watching

By Jordan Lorence Posted on: | May 19, 2017

The U.S. Supreme Court has entered the final weeks of its term, which should wrap up at the end of June. The justices and their clerks are working hard to complete the opinions in the remaining 35 cases. Here are the decisions ADF is watching for from the high court:

Trinity Lutheran

This is our big religious liberty case, so of course we are waiting eagerly for the decision. Trinity Lutheran involves the State of Missouri’s denial of a requested grant to a church-run preschool to reimburse it for a playground surface made of recycled tires. Although Trinity Lutheran met all of the secular criteria for the grant, the state denied it because of a state constitutional provision prohibiting government aid to churches. Because the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on April 19, I do not expect the Court to hand down the decision until the last week of the term in late June.

Church pension fund case

This religious liberty case involves an interpretation of a federal statute regulating pension plans for employees of private businesses. Congress passed the Employment Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) in 1974 with a provision exempting pension plans of churches and other religious organizations, which have a long history of providing for their retired employees and therefore did not need federal oversight. The Supreme Court consolidated three lawsuits where employees sued three religious hospital systems for more pension money. The employees claim that ERISA’s church plan exemption does not apply to the hospitals because they were not started by churches nor operated by churches, even though they are currently run by religious groups.

ADF argued in its friend-of-the-court brief that to interpret the exemption narrowly would unconstitutionally favor some types of religious groups over others. For example, the law would only exempt a hospital set up by and run by a hierarchical church, but would not protect a hospital set up by a religious group that is not technically a church, like an order of nuns or an independent Baptist church agency. At the oral arguments last March, the justices seemed to agree with the hospitals that Congress intended a broad exemption for religious groups.

Lee v. Tam – “The Slants” case

This case raises a freedom of speech issue: Can the federal government deny a business a trademark for its name, if the name “disparages” people? In 2011, Simon Tam tried to register the name of his rock band, The Slants, as a trademark. Mr. Tam and all the band members are Asian-Americans, and they are trying to redeem a derogatory name for Asians – “slants” – by using it as the name for their music group. The federal Patent and Trademark Office ruled that the name violated the Lanham Act and denied the application, because it disparages Asians. The Slants appealed, and the case went to the Supreme Court. From the oral arguments, the justices seemed inclined to agree with the band, that the federal government violated the First Amendment by denying the trademark.

Masterpiece Cakeshop

The justices have been considering for a long time what to do with this right of conscience case ADF appealed to the Court last July! Jack Phillips is a cake artist in Colorado who declined to design one of his creative wedding cakes for the wedding ceremony of two men. The state human rights commission ruled against Jack’s company, citing discrimination. At least some justices are interested in this case, but it is unclear why it is taking so long for the Court to decide whether to hear this case or not. Stay tuned.  

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Jordan Lorence

Senior Counsel

Jordan Lorence serves as senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom where he plays a key role with the Advocacy Research and Innovation Team.

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