Larson v. Valente (1982)456 U.S. 228 | Burger Court

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In Larson v. Valente, the Court determined that the government could not “politicize religion” by discriminating against religious organizations that largely solicited from nonmembers. During the 1960s, Minnesota passed a law that required charitable organizations that solicit money to register with the state and provide extensive annual reports on their practices. If the Minnesota Department of Commerce found that an organization had operated in a fraudulent way, registration may be revoked. Religious organizations were exempt from this act until 1978, when it was amended to include religious organizations that received more than fifty percent of funding from soliciting nonmembers. Shortly after the change, the Department of Commerce notified the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity that it must register with the state. Members of the church claimed that the 1978 provision violated the Establishment Clause by discriminating against certain religious groups’ free exercise of religion.

In a 5-4 decision, the Court sided with the plaintiffs, arguing that the fifty percent rule discriminated between denominations and gave preference to some over others. Minnesota’s provision unduly burdened Unity Church and other religious groups with extensive reporting on their practices. In relation to the Lemon test, the state had violated the requirement that forbid excessive government entanglement in religious affairs. Although the act had a legitimate secular purpose (preventing fraud), it had not been applied in an even-handed manner, but used an arbitrary requirement to discriminate between denominations.

Both Justice White and Justice Rehnquist offered dissenting opinions. Unlike the Supreme Court, the District Court had not found intentional religious discrimination, but a principal effect that inhibited religion. White argued that the Court should not have disregarded this use of the Lemon test’s second rule. White also did not see “an explicit and deliberate preference for some religious beliefs over others…” Rehnquist joined in this dissent and separately argued that it was improper for the Court to rule on the constitutionality of the case when the Unity Church’s status as a religious organization was unclear.