The Supreme Court of the United States has certainly brought much relief to religious rights advocates, faith-based institutions, believers, and others of good will this summer — but this turn in favor of religious freedom is anything but new.
The Dobbs decision, which effectively overturned Roe v. Wade, and the Kennedy decision, which ruled in favor of a public school coach’s right to pray after football games, are currently at the forefront of our minds, but they are hardly anomalies. Since at least 2018, the Supreme Court has steadily upheld religious freedoms and protected this aspect of the First Amendment against further government overreach.
Let’s review some of the hallmark cases that have affirmed religious rights.
In the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision of 2018, the dourt ruled 7-2 that the state of Colorado violated the rights of Jack Phillips, the Masterpiece Cakeshop owner who refused to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding. Though TheBlaze’s Mark Levin argued at the time that the decision meant “nothing, from a constitutional perspective” and Phillips continues to be harassed by LGBTQ+-related lawsuits, a narrow decision in favor of religious rights is a decision in favor of religious rights nonetheless.
In another 7-2 decision in 2019 — this time, with Trump appointees Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh both on the bench — the Court determined that a religious war memorial on public land did not constitute an endorsement of religion by the state of Maryland, and the Peace Cross remains on display in Bladensburg, Maryland, to this day.
The Supreme Court docket of 2020 had a bevy of religious rights rulings, most of which came down on the side of religious freedom. The court ruled that Catholic schools have the right not to hire staff members whose lifestyles do not accord with Catholic teaching, that religious schools may not be excluded from state-sponsored tuition aid programs, and that faith-based employers such as the Little Sisters of the Poor could be exempted from aspects of the federal Affordable Care Act that violate their religious convictions.
However, one key decision in 2020 did not go the way that many conservative believers had hoped. In a 6-3 majority opinion, written by Gorsuch, the court determined that “gender identity” was implicitly protected by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and that employers may not discriminate against “transgender” employees or applicants.
Still, the SCOTUS issued other important religious rights decisions in 2021. With Trump’s third appointee, Amy Coney Barrett, now on the bench as well, the court ruled unanimously that Catholic social services could exclude same-sex couples from consideration as foster parents.
Now in 2022, the court has officially ruled in favor of the rights of public schools employees to pray in public and returned the abortion decision to the states, where people of all religious stripes or no religion at all may weigh the moral issue on its merits.
Though Biden appointee Ketanji Brown Jackson was confirmed earlier this year to replace the retiring Stephen Breyer and is expected to rule routinely with fellow liberal justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, conservative justices still outnumber their liberal counterparts 6-3. This court balance in favor of conservative justices means we may see further fortification of religious liberties in years to come.