Over Gorsuch dissent, justices deny review in dispute over definition of “minister” for tax-exemption purposes

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After adding five cases to its merits docket for the spring on Friday, the Supreme Court on Tuesday morning issued more orders from the justices’ private conference last week. As expected, the justices did not grant any new cases. Perhaps most notably, they once again did not act on a pair of petitions challenging the consideration of race in the undergraduate admissions process at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina, nor did they act on a petition filed by a website designer who does not want to design custom wedding websites for same-sex couples.

The justices called for the federal government’s views in Johnson v. Bethany Hospice and Palliative Care, a dispute over pleading standards in cases brought under the False Claims Act, which prohibits the submission of fraudulent claims to the government. There is no deadline for the U.S. solicitor general to file the government’s brief in the case. [Disclosure: Goldstein & Russell, P.C., whose attorneys contribute to SCOTUSblog in various capacities, is among the counsel to the petitioners in the case.]

The justices denied review in Trustees of the New Life in Christ Church v. City of Fredericksburg, Virginia, a challenge to the city’s denial of a property tax exemption for a property owned by the church and occupied by a couple whom the church designated as its “ministers.” When the city disputed the designation, the church asked the justices to weigh in on whether the city’s reliance on its own interpretation of church doctrine to overrule the church’s interpretation of what constitutes a minister  violated the First Amendment.

After considering the case at eight consecutive conferences, the justices turned down the church’s request on Tuesday. Justice Neil Gorsuch dissented from that decision, explaining that he would not only grant the church’s petition for review but also rule in its favor even without additional briefing and oral argument on the merits. “The First Amendment,” Gorsuch stressed, “does not permit bureaucrats or judges to ‘subject’ religious beliefs ‘to verification.’”

The justices will meet again for another private conference on Friday. It is their last regularly scheduled conference before they begin a month-long winter recess.

This article was originally published at Howe on the Court. 



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