Today in 1983: SCOTUS upholds revocation of tax exempt status for racially discriminatory religious school

May 24, 2013

Today in Legal HistoryThe topic of same-sex marriage has become one of the most debated social issues in recent years.

The Supreme Court itself is expected to issue decisions in two potentially landmark cases on the matter (Hollingsworth v. Perry and U.S. v. Windsor) by the end of June.

Where many proponents of same-sex marriage rights frame the struggle as one for civil rights, many opponents of same-sex marriage cite religious reasons for their resistance.

It appears that the religious viewpoint has been given a great amount of deference in this debate, seeing as virtually every state law that has granted same-sex couples the right to marriage has included some form of exemptions based on religious association.

One of the most prominent of these exemptions is the protection from legal liability for any religious groups that refused to provide their buildings or services for same-sex marriage ceremonies (my home state of Minnesota, which legalized same-sex marriage earlier this month, followed in the long line of other states by also adding this provision).

Interestingly enough, religious rationales were also cited by much of the opposition to the very well known civil rights struggle for racial equality some 40 years ago.

However, a Supreme Court ruling celebrating its thirtieth anniversary today, Bob Jones University v. U.S., demonstrates that religious objections to the civil rights movement of the 1960s were not given quite the legal deference that such objections to same-sex marriage enjoy today.

The ruling held that Bob Jones University and Goldsboro Christian School, two private, evangelical Protestant Christian schools, had been rightfully revoked of their tax exempt status by the Internal Revenue Service because of the schools’ racial discriminatory policies.

Bob Jones University denied “admission to applicants engaged in an interracial marriage or known to advocate interracial marriage or dating.”  Until 1971, blacks were completely excluded from enrollment, and even thereafter, it only accepted applications from blacks who were “married within their own race.”  The school’s official policy called for the expulsion of any student found to be in a romantic interracial relationship of any kind.  Goldsboro’s policies were largely similar.

The schools cited Biblical authority to justify their policies:

race is determined by descendance from one of Noah’s three sons – Ham, Shem and Japheth. Based on this interpretation, Orientals and Negroes are Hamitic, Hebrews are Shemitic, and Caucasians are Japhethitic. Cultural or biological mixing of the races is regarded as a violation of God’s command.

Although the Court recognized this as a sincerely-held religious belief, it upheld the IRS’s determination regardless.

In its 8-1 ruling (Justice Rehnquist was the sole dissenter), the Court held that the “Government has a fundamental, overriding interest in eradicating racial discrimination in education.”

This interest, the Court ruled, “substantially outweighs whatever burden denial of tax benefits places on [the schools’] exercise of their religious beliefs”

The reason that this “Government interest” was more powerful than the schools’ interest in their free exercise of their religious beliefs was because the Court applied a “strict scrutiny” analysis in the case.

Strict scrutiny was applied because racial discrimination was at issue in the case, as the standard is applied in circumstances where government action affects groups considered “suspect classes.”

Since additional “suspect classes” are rarely created nowadays, strict scrutiny doesn’t see much use in cases involving newer forms of discrimination – such as Perry and Windsor.

The best that LGBT couples could seemingly hope for in either of those cases is “quasi-suspect” classification, which, while providing some additional legal protections, does not invoke the use of “strict scrutiny.”

As such, it is highly unlikely that the Supreme Court will ever decide in the near future that a government interest in eradicating discrimination based on sexual orientation outweighs “whatever burden” is placed on an individual’s or an entity’s “exercise of their religious beliefs.”

In that it did put government interests in fighting discrimination ahead of the private free exercise of religion, Bob Jones University v. U.S. is that much more significant as a historical legal event.