Supreme Court Decisions with Religious Liberty Implications

The U.S. Supreme Court this week turned heads among religious freedom advocates with action on two pending cases.

In what is viewed by a number of observers as an example of positive deference to church autonomy, the court ruled unanimously in favor of faith-based hospitals in the case of Advocate Health Care Network v. Stapleton. Justice Elena Kagan authored the 8-0 opinion (Justice Neil Gorsuch did not participate since it was argued before his arrival on the court) overruling lower court rulings and respecting the relief provided by Congress to church-affiliated plans under the Employment Retirement Income Securities Act (ERISA).

In an article describing the history and importance of the case, Walter M. Weber, Senior Counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, noted that despite arguments to the contrary offered by groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, “the Court did not suggest that it saw even the slightest problem with the notion of an exception for church plans in the first place – which is a very good thing and a significant victory for religious freedom.” Similarly, Jordan Lorence, Senior Counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, told the Washington Times that the ruling “grants a very broad view of church autonomy” and “pushes back government regulation of internal church affairs.”

Unfortunately, the court also disappointed religious liberty advocates this week.  On Monday, the justices decided not to hear an appeal for a U.S. Marine court-martialed for posting at her desk a paraphrased Bible verse (“No weapon formed against me shall prosper” from Isaiah 54:17). Kelly Shackelford, President of First Liberty Institute, which took on the case of Lance Corporal Monifa Sterling, said, “The military court’s outrageous decision means federal judges and military officials can strip our service members of their constitutional rights just because they don’t think someone’s religious beliefs are important enough to be protected. Our service members deserve better.”

The Supreme Court is scheduled to complete its session at the end of this month, and, among other cases, decisions are possible on the Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer religious preschool discrimination case and on whether or not the justices will hear the marriage and religious freedom case of Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.

By Aaron Mercer, Vice President of Government Relations

Published: June 9, 2017

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