By Sam Currin
Christian Action League
August 9, 2023
With American Christians and religious institutions facing discrimination both in the marketplace and by governments, it is no surprise that religious liberty issues have become center stage at the U.S. Supreme Court.
In fact, the Court’s dockets for the past several years have included more religious liberty cases than any time prior. The good news is that religious claims are winning, so much so that secular critics are falsely complaining that the Court is transforming religious liberty into religious privilege.
This is a welcome change from just a few decades ago when the Court showed either hostility or reluctance to protecting the rights of religious claimants.
Much of the credit for this success goes to Christian lawyers’ groups such as the Alliance Defending Freedom that shepherd these cases from initial filings to oral arguments before the Supreme Court.
The Court’s rulings include a 2014 decision allowing the Hobby Lobby company to claim an exemption from the Affordable Care Act’s mandate to provide birth control to employees and a 2018 decision in which the Court sided with a Colorado baker who refused to provide a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding.
More recently, the Court has rejected Covid-19 restrictions on religious worship and ruled that the city of Philadelphia cannot deny contracts to Christian social-service agencies that refuse to certify same-sex or unmarried couples as prospective foster parents.
In the area of education, the Court has reaffirmed that judges may not second-guess religious schools’ employment decisions and invalidated the exclusion of religious schools from public-benefit programs offered by the state.
School prayer also got a healthy reprieve from the Court. In Kennedy v. Bremerton School District (2022), the majority opinion upheld the right of a public school football coach to offer a prayer on the 50-yard line after a game. The decision is likely to have far-reaching repercussions for future interpretations of the free exercise, establishment, and free speech clauses of the First Amendment.
It is encouraging to see the Supreme Court taking a broad view of religious freedom in these key cases and rejecting older, erroneous interpretations of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause that were often read to countenance religious discrimination.
Freedom of religion does not mean freedom from religion.
Two cases handed down at the close of this year’s term provided additional victories for religious liberty claimants in two significant areas.
In the first case, Groff v. DeJoy, the Supreme Court granted a major victory to former postal carrier Gerald Groff against the U.S. Postal Service, after Groff lost his job for observing the Sunday Sabbath.
At the time he joined the USPS, it did not deliver on Sundays; but when Amazon purchased a contract requiring the USPS to deliver packages on Sundays, Groff was forced to choose to work Sundays or give up his job. While he was willing to work with the post office to find a reasonable accommodation, the post office was not.
Rather than resign, Groff filed suit against the USPS and won.
The Court held that federal law requires workplaces to accommodate their religious employees unless doing so would cause “substantial costs” for the business — a high bar to overcome.
Previously, employers could avoid granting religious accommodations to employees of faith simply by pointing to “minimal effects” — a low standard that afforded virtually no protection for workers.
As a result of Groff’s personal fight to practice his religion, Americans will not be forced to choose between their faith and their job. After years of evading the issue, the Supreme Court now agrees that religious employees deserve meaningful legal protections.
The second case, 303 Creative v. Elenis, is potentially even more far-reaching in its scope and application.
In what is truly a landmark victory for free speech, the Supreme Court struck down a Colorado law that would have punished a Christian graphic designer who declined to design a website for a same-sex ceremony that violated her biblical religious beliefs.
“The First Amendment envisions the United States as a rich and complex place where all persons are free to think and speak as they wish, not as the government demands,” Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the majority.
With an aggressive secular culture increasingly attempting to force ideological conformity on people of faith—often under threat of state coercion—these recent rulings are a welcome sign of hope.
As for us Baptists, we should give a nod to our proud heritage by remembering our colonial Baptist ancestors, often jailed and beaten for their preaching, who insisted on incorporating the First Amendment into the Constitution—without which none of these landmark cases could have been won.
We dare not forget that it was our Baptist forefathers’ vision that gave America a “free church in a free state.” Like them, we live in a supremely strategic moment in history and, thankfully, we do not need the government’s permission to preach the gospel.
Dr. Sam Currin (firstname.lastname@example.org) lives in Raleigh, NC and is a former judge, law professor, and United States Attorney. An ordained Baptist minister, he holds degrees from Wake Forest University, UNC School of Law, and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.