Year in Review: Religious freedom gains some ground
Religious Liberty | LGBT issues dominated First Amendment debates
by Steve West
Posted 12/31/19, 12:23 pm
Despite a Supreme Court decision in favor of religious liberty, battles continued on multiple fronts this year, from schools and medical centers to child placement agencies and the small businesses of creative professionals.
The Supreme Court’s sole entry in the religious liberty docket this year was its June decision allowing the century-old Bladensburg, Md., memorial cross to remain in place. The American Humanist Association sued the American Legion and the city to take down the 40-foot monument erected in 1925 to honor World War I dead. While seven justices agreed the public monument did not constitute a violation of the Establishment Clause, they could not unite behind clear guidelines for evaluating religious symbols in public.
But the opinion has already affected at least two lower court decisions. In July, the Supreme Court ordered a lower court to reconsider its decision requiring the city of Pensacola, Fla., to remove a memorial cross from the city’s Bayview Park. And in August, a federal appeals court ruled that the cross on the Lehigh County, Pa., seal did not violate the Constitution. Despite its splintered decision, the high court seems to have sent a clear message that historic religious imagery has a place in the public square. —S.W.
Faith-based foster care and adoption groups battled nondiscrimination laws requiring them to place children with same-sex couples against the agencies’ religious beliefs. Some good news: South Carolina’s Miracle Hill Ministries in January received a waiver exempting it from Obama-era nondiscrimination rules, allowing it to continue to serve families in accordance with its statement of faith. The Trump administration also proposed new rules to protect agencies’ religious liberty. And in Michigan, a federal court halted enforcement of a state regulation requiring St. Vincent Catholic Charities to place children with same-sex couples. The judges criticized the state for trying to “stamp out St. Vincent’s religious belief and replace it with its own.”
But challenges remain. A federal appeals court refused any relief to Catholic Social Services of Philadelphia when the city threatened to shutter the agency over its policy of not placing children with same-sex couples, forcing them to appeal to the Supreme Court. And another federal court declined to provide relief for New Hope Family Services of Syracuse, N.Y. Mixed signals from lower courts mean the standoff likely won’t end unless the Supreme Court gets involved. —S.W.
Student groups in public universities and secondary schools went to court over access to campus privileges and the freedom to choose leaders who adhere to Christian beliefs. A federal judge granted InterVarsity Christian Fellowship summary judgment against the University of Iowa in September, saying the ministry had a right to select only Christians for leadership positions. A similar issue is playing out in secondary schools like one in Bozeman, Mt., where the school district revoked Fellowship of Christian Athletes’ official recognition because of its belief in Biblical marriage.
School faculty faced their own challenges. In July, a California state court sided with Moreno Valley College sociology professor Eric Thompson, a Christian accused of misconduct after introducing students to alternative views of same-sex attraction. Peter Vlaming, a French teacher at Virginia’s West Point High School, sued the school district in October after it fired him for refusing to use male pronouns for a female student. And Indiana University turned up the heat on tenured Christian and conservative professor Eric Rasmusen over social media posts it alleged were racist and homophobic. —S.W.
The religious liberties of doctors and other medical professionals have bounced around in courts this year. The Trump administration in May announced new rules protecting healthcare providers from being forced to participate in procedures such as abortions and sex-change surgeries that violate their religious beliefs. Several states and municipalities immediately challenged the rules, which a federal judge in New York ultimately threw out in November. The ruling has been appealed.
But there were positive developments, also. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services stepped in to defend a Vermont nurse’s right not to participate in an elective abortion procedure at a Burlington hospital in September. And in October, a federal judge in Texas struck down an Obama-era regulation that required medical professionals to perform abortions and gender transition procedures. Without protections, Christian medical professionals—many of whom treat the underserved and poor—may have to leave the profession rather than violate their consciences. —S.W.
Creative professionals had a streak of wins in 2019, building on the Supreme Court’s favorable 2018 ruling protecting wedding cake baker Jack Phillips and his Masterpiece Cakeshop. The high court sent a case involving Christian bakers Aaron and Melissa Klein back to the Oregon Court of Appeals for reconsideration in light of its Masterpiece Cakeshop ruling. Arizona’s Supreme Court vindicated wedding invitation designers Joanna Duka and Breanna Koski. And the Kentucky Supreme Court cleared a path for Christian printer Blaine Adamson to decline to print pro-LGBT T-shirts.
All eyes are now on Washington florist Barronelle Stutzman, whose case is pending before the Supreme Court. The justices had ordered the Washington Supreme Court to reconsider its ruling against her. When that court ruled against Stutzman a second time, she appealed. Religious liberty advocates hope a decision will better protect the conscience rights of creative professionals against enforcement of proliferating nondiscrimination laws. —S.W.
Steve is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute mid-career course.