Liberties Reporting on First Amendment freedoms

A year of free exercise fights

First Amendment | Christian families, business owners, and ministries did battle this year to retain their constitutional right to live out their faith in the public square
by Bonnie Pritchett
Posted 12/26/17, 05:48 pm

Legal challenges to Christians’ public expression of faith at work, home, school, and in ministry continued throughout 2017. And as the year drew to a close, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that could affect them all.

A baker, a florist, and a gay couple walk into court

At the close of 2017, five years of waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court to take up a case that could determine the right of people to publicly live out their faith without government penalty came to an end. On Dec. 5, the high court heard arguments in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. And now we wait again: A decision is not expected until June. Jack Phillips, a Lakewood, Colo., baker and the plaintiff in Masterpiece, is not waiting alone. Those with a vested interest in the outcome of his case include Washington state florist Barronelle Stutzman, Oregon bakers Melissa and Aaron Klein, Minnesota filmmakers Angel and Carl Larsen, and others whose state laws are being used to conflate rights of conscience with discrimination against gays and lesbians. Let’s pray the Supreme Court justices can distinguish between the two.

All is not well

Thirty years ago, philosopher Allan Bloom argued in The Closing of the American Mind that all is not well on university campuses. The bitter seeds sown since then have taken root and borne a poisonous—and sometimes violent—fruit of identity politics, intersectionality, and relativism. In 2017, some college administrators nurtured the seeds of discontent by affirming students’ calls for campus safe spaces, silencing so-called “hate speech,” and maintaining speech codes that ignore free speech liberties. Offending campuses included the University of California, Berkeley Middlebury College; Evergreen State College; and the College of William and Mary. A study released Sept. 12 indicates the protesters’ attempts to shut down speech with which they disagree may be rooted in a poorly cultivated understanding of and appreciation for the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. But there are glimmers of hope. While more than 90 percent of U.S. universities still maintain speech codes at odds with the Constitution, that number has declined for the 10th year in a row, according to a new report from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

Passing judgment

President Donald Trump rightly received kudos for his nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the president also made headway on the U.S. Courts of Appeals. In fact, the U.S. Senate confirmed a record number of Trump’s federal appeals court nominees—12—more than any president in his first year. Questioning by Democrats during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings illustrated why conservative Republicans are anxious to fill judicial seats with constitutional constructionists. Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., skirted close to an unconstitutional litmus test when she told 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals nominee Amy Coney Barrett, a Catholic (and mother of seven), “When you read your speeches, the conclusion one draws is that the dogma lives loudly within you, and that’s of concern.” The judicial appointment process also has demonstrated the political divide: Confirmation votes, for the most part, have fallen along party lines. Even endorsements from the liberal American Bar Association failed to sway Democrats. “This is a shame. And it does not speak well of our institution,” Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, told his colleagues prior to the 55-43 vote confirming Barrett’s appointment.

The patience of Little Sisters of the Poor

The Little Sisters of the Poor have patiently waited for relief from the Obamacare mandate dictating that all employers—even Catholic nuns who minister to the elderly poor—provide birth control for employees despite their religious objections. The nuns believed they had earned their relief with a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court decision and then with an Oct. 6, 2017, interim rewrite of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) regulation. The new rule provides exemptions for individuals and entities who object to providing birth control, including abortifacients, because of religious or moral convictions. But such allowances, according to pro-abortion advocates like Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards, are an egregious affront to women’s “basic healthcare.” Hours after HHS posted the new rules, allies of Planned Parenthood filed lawsuits in California and Massachusetts to put a stop to the moral objections accommodation. A federal judge and several states have since joined the efforts of the pro-abortion crowd to keep the nuns in line.

Fostering religious liberty

Faith-based foster and adoption care ministries—and the states that partner with them—continued to come under attack by pro-LGBT litigants demanding the agencies abandon their Biblical operating standards or face financially crushing lawsuits. In Michigan, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit against the state demanding it rescind a 2015 law giving religious agencies legal cover to operate according to their convictions. That law, the ACLU contends, conflicts with Michigan’s sexual orientation and gender identity nondiscrimination law. But one Michigan family and the Catholic adoption agency that facilitated their adoption are fighting back. Melissa and Chad Buck, their adopted daughter Shamber Flore, and St. Vincent Catholic Charities filed an intervening motion on Dec. 18 to dismiss the case. For years, lawsuits or the threat of lawsuits have forced Christian adoption and foster care agencies to withdraw from some states. To stem that tide, legislators in Michigan, Alabama, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas, and Virginia passed laws giving religious-affiliated agencies permission to operate according to their convictions. Contrary to activist propaganda, the laws do not prevent gays and lesbians from adopting or fostering children. But if Michigan’s law is struck down, similarly situated states—and their religious agencies—could find themselves targeted by the ACLU’s conform-or-close dictate.

Bonnie Pritchett

Bonnie reports on First Amendment freedoms for WORLD Digital.

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