The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear an important religious freedom case involving a local government’s foray into interpreting church doctrine. The case concerns a church in Virginia and its designation of who its “ministers” are. You need four justices to agree before the high court “grants cert,” another way of saying that they will hear the appeal. So, in a case involving a government entity second-guessing a church’s own designation of its ministers, it’s shocking that the court couldn’t muster four votes to take on this case.

New Life in Christ Church (New Life) in Fredericksburg, Virginia hired Josh and Anacari Storms, a married couple, to teach and spread the faith to college students in the community. The church provided the couple with a residence on church property and then applied to the city for a local property tax exemption because the residence was being used for a parsonage.

The Fredericksburg city government denied the exemption request after researching church doctrine, saying that New Life’s new pastors did not fit the Presbyterian Church in America’s definition of “minister.” The church disagreed with the city’s determination and attempted to explain why the couple did fit the definition of “minister,” but to no avail.

The church sued the city but lost in a Virginia state court. The Virginia Supreme Court refused to take the case, whereupon the church appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, relying on established First Amendment principles that courts and governments have no business looking into and deciding issues dependent on interpretation of ecclesiastic doctrine and church autonomy.

Although the Supreme Court does not issue opinions explaining why it does not grant cert in any particular case, individual justices are permitted to write opinions objecting to the court’s action.

In this case, a dissent issued by Justice Neil Gorsuch is notable for its strong language and defense of a church’s right to determine who its “ministers” are.

“The Framers of our Constitution were acutely aware how governments in Europe had sought to control and manipulate religious practices and churches. They resolved that America would be different. In this country, we would not subscribe to the ‘arrogant pretension’ that secular officials may serve as ‘competent Judge[s] of Religious truth’ [citation omitted],” Gorsuch wrote.

“Instead, religious persons would enjoy the right ‘to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of . . . faith and doctrine.’ [citation omitted]. This case may be a small one, and one can hope that the error here is so obvious it is unlikely to be repeated anytime soon. But I would correct it. Bureaucratic efforts to ‘subject’ religious beliefs to ‘verification’ have no place in a free country.”

New Life is represented by attorneys with First Liberty Institute, the Christian Legal Society, and the law firm of Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher LLC. In a press release posted on the First Liberty website, First Liberty President, Chief Counsel and CEO Kelly Shackelford expressed deep disappointment with the court’s action.

“This is a travesty, and it is dangerous. If a government bureaucrat can determine theology and tell a church who is or is not a minister, we are in trouble,” Shackelford said. “We’re disappointed that the Supreme Court allowed this dangerous abuse of government authority to stand.”

The high court has another request before it involving Gordon College in Massachusetts, and its right to determine that its professors at the Christian school are “ministers.” A lower court ruled the school did not have that right. Hopefully, the justices will accept the Gordon College case for hearing and reverse the lower court ruling. We’ll keep you apprised of developments there.


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