In a series of new rulings, the conservative-majority United States Supreme Court has chipped away at the wall separating church and state, eroding American legal traditions intended to prevent government officials from promoting any particular faith.
In three recent decisions, the Supreme Court has ruled against government officials whose policies and actions were designed to avoid violating the First Amendment’s prohibition on the governmental endorsement of religion, known as the establishment clause.
The Washington State Supreme Court sided with a public high school football coach who had been suspended by a local school district for refusing to stop leading Christian prayers with players on the field after games.
On June 21, it endorsed the use of taxpayer funds to pay for students to attend religious schools through a Maine tuition assistance programme in rural areas where there are no nearby public high schools.
On May 2, it ruled in favor of a Christian group that wanted to fly a cross-emblazoned flag at Boston City Hall as part of a programme to promote diversity and tolerance among the city’s various communities.
The court’s conservative justices, who hold a 6-3 majority, have taken a broad view of religious rights in particular. They also issued a decision on Friday that religious conservatives applauded, overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide, despite the fact that that case did not involve the establishment clause.
According to Cornell Law School professor Michael Dorf, the majority of the court appears skeptical of government decision-making based on secularism. According to Lori Windham, a lawyer with the religious liberty legal group Becket, the court’s decisions will allow for more religious expression by individuals without undermining the establishment clause.
“The separation of church and state is maintained in a way that protects both. It prevents the government from interfering with churches while also protecting different religious expressions “Windham elaborated. “They regard secularism, which has for centuries been the liberal world’s understanding of what it means to be neutral, as a form of religious discrimination,” Dorf said of the conservative justices.
Conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in his decision on Monday that the court’s goal was to prevent public officials from being hostile to religion as they navigate the establishment clause. “In no world, may a government entity’s concerns about phantom violations justify actual violations of an individual’s First Amendment rights,” Gorsuch said.
The majority of recent religious-rights rulings have involved Christian plaintiffs. However, the court has also supported adherents of other religions, such as a Muslim woman in 2015 who was denied a retail sales job because she wore a head scarf for religious reasons and a Buddhist death row inmate in 2019 who requested that a spiritual adviser be present at his execution in Texas.
The court also sided with both Christian and Jewish congregations in challenges to governmental restrictions based on religious rights, such as limits on public gatherings imposed as public safety measures during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nicole Stelle Garnett, a Notre Dame Law School professor who joined a brief filed with the justices in support of the football coach, said the court was simply stating that governments must treat religious people equally. Following Monday’s decision, many issues concerning religious conduct in schools may be litigated again under the court’s logic that the conduct must be “coercive” in order to raise establishment clause concerns.