This expression, the Supreme Court decided two cases involving religion: Groff v. DeJoy was a relatively low-profile case regarding religious accommodations at work; 303 Creative v. Elenis was a case study of the clash between religious exercise and principles of equal treatment. (The legal question was technically about speech, but religion was at the heart of the dispute.)
In both cases, plaintiffs asserted religiously based objections to compliance with long-standing and well-settled laws or rules that would otherwise apply to them. And in both, the court gave the plaintiff a resounding victory.
These cases are the latest examples of a striking long-term trend: Especially since Amy Coney Barrett became justice in 2020, the court has taken a sledgehammer to a set of practices and compromises that were carefully forged over decades to balance religious freedom with other important — and sometimes opposing — principles.
The establishment clause of the First Amendment was once understood to place limits on the government’s involvement with or facilitation of religion, but those limits appear to have been shattered. This legal demolition was accompanied by the degradation of other important principles such as equality, public health and simple justice in law, resulting in a disorienting imbalance of values in American society.
The country will feel the impact of this sharp change in the coming years – and may face more cases that overturn set precedent and further elevate religion to favored status under the law. Among the principles that may be vulnerable before this court are long-term limitations prayer in public schools and the basic value of equality before the law.
In just the last three years, the court did sided with a religious foster agency that refused to certify same-sex couples as foster parents; a religious group who wanted to fly a Christian flag over the City Hall of Boston; religious schools in Maine that sought public subsidies; public school football coach who insisted on praying at midfield after games, on some accounts causing students to feel pressured to participate; and religious organizations which challenged early Covid restrictions about gathering in large groups.
The legal questions and reasoning differed, but since Justice Barrett replaced Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the court has sided with religious plaintiffs in all but a few major religious cases. exceptions on the shadow file, representing an essentially unbroken streak of victories for Christian plaintiffs.
This last point is significant. Where historically some of the court the most important religious freedom decisions have protected members of minority religions against discrimination, the big winners in recent cases have been practitioners of mainstream Christian religions.
In the 303 Creative case, the majority opinion of Judge Neil Gorsuch concluded that a Christian website designer who did not want to design websites for same-sex marriages did not have to comply with public accommodations in Colorado which prohibits, among other things, discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation of any business engaged in selling to the public.
Religiously based objections to laws like Colorado’s that require equal treatment in the business marketplace are nothing new. As Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent explained, those laws have been repeatedly challenged, including some based on an asserted First Amendment right to discriminate. For decades after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the court was, in the words of Justice Sotomayor, “unwavering in its rejection of these claims.”
But those cases were decided before the rise of the conservative supermajority’s unlimited concept of the imperative to protect and accommodate the practice of religion in our public life. This court has sought to rearrange competing values—such as pluralism, democracy, and the mutual respect and tolerance both require—around that imperative, however much it may diminish them.
The 303 Creative opinion raises a question with potentially far-reaching implications: How will equal rights laws survive? The opinion’s lack of an obvious limiting principle—perhaps it encompasses only businesses whose goods or services can be described as expressive, though that’s certainly a large set—seems to suggest that many or most religiously based objections to public accommodations will succeed.
This could mean that same-sex couples wishing to exercise their constitutional right to marry will find themselves turned away by wedding vendors such as bakers, photographers and calligraphers. And the license to discriminate may not stop there. What about birth announcements for children of same-sex couples? Or entertainment at their birthday parties?
Nothing in the opinion limits its application to same-sex couples and their families. As Justice Sotomayor suggests, according to the opinion’s reasoning, a school photography business could deny services to multiracial children because of an objection to interracial couples, or a corporate headshot business could refuse to photograph women based on a belief that a woman’s place. is in the home. If businesses choose to read this opinion broadly, its ramifications for the ability of many Americans to obtain goods and services on equal terms could be staggering.
The opinion of Groff of the court shows a different aspect of the trajectory of religious rights. It involved an evangelical Christian who for religious reasons did not wish to work on Sunday. When his employer, the Postal Service, started Sunday deliveries at his location, he initially sought and received a transfer. After his new office also began offering Sunday deliveries, the service initially tried to get other carriers to cover Mr. Groff’s deliveries, but he was eventually disciplined and later resigned. He filed a lawsuit arguing that the service was required to do more to accommodate its Sunday Sabbath practice.
The case involved a provision of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of religion (along with race, color, sex and national origin). When it comes to how to balance the sincere religious beliefs of workers and the needs of the workplace, courts and the key federal employment agency had, until this decision, developed a set of tools that sought to balance the competing values at stake. Most places of employment have workers with conflicting needs and responsibilities, involving their families, their health, and their religious practices, among other things—and navigating to maintain productivity as well as morale can be tricky.
In Groff, the court held “to explain” the 1977 Trans World Airlines v. Hardison opinion, which held that a religious accommodation at work was not required if it would impose a “substantial cost” on the employer; the Alito opinion explained that the Hardison formulation was insufficiently protective of religion. By elevating one set of needs – religious obligations – above all others, the court has undermined the ability of employers to respond to a diverse workforce in ways that fairly account for different needs.
There is no reason to believe that the court is done. For example, there is little doubt that it will soon formally overrule its 1990 opinion in Employment Division v. Smith and will discard the longstanding rule that neutral laws of general applicability—which apply equally to all individuals, regardless of faith or other personal characteristics—are presumptively constitutional, even if they may impose some burdens on religion.
Depending on what the court offers in its place, laws governing everything from zoning to health care may be subject to a successful challenge by people claiming those laws burden their religious exercise.
For zoning laws, imagine that a house of worship claims that generally applicable laws about what structures can be built, or what activities they can house, burden their religious exercise.
In health care, there is already significant litigation alleging religiously based objections to providing certain types of health care; overruling Smith, along with other developments in the court’s religious jurisprudence, could mean that doctors, hospitals and employers gain a powerful new argument for refusing to provide certain services or coverage to patients or employees.
There is no question that religious freedom is an important American value, and one our Constitution and our traditions protect. But it is not the only such value.
The court’s elevation of religious exercise above all other principles poses a genuine threat to the ability of our businesses and institutions to make arrangements that account for the competing demands of America’s diverse population.