The separation of church and state is a target for the US Supreme Court
Reuters, June 28 – Washington In a number of recent decisions, the U.S. Supreme Court, which is conservative-majority, has eroded American legal traditions meant to forbid public officials from advancing any specific faith.
The court has ruled against government officials in three decisions over the course of the last eight weeks whose policies and actions were adopted to comply with the “establishment clause” of the First Amendment, which forbids governmental endorsement of religion.
On Monday, the court upheld a local school district’s decision to ban a public high school football coach in Washington for continuing to lead players in Christian prayers on the field following contests.
On June 21, it approved using taxpayer funds to pay for kids to attend religious institutions in remote communities without access to public high schools as part of a Maine tuition assistance program.
On May 2, it made a decision in favor of a Christian organization that wanted to fly a flag with a cross on it over Boston City Hall as part of a campaign to encourage tolerance and diversity among the city’s various populations.
Particularly, the majority of 6-3 conservative justices on the court have adopted a liberal perspective on religious freedom. Despite the fact that Roe v. Wade did not include the establishment clause, they also rendered a decision on Friday that was praised by Christian conservatives, overturning the decision that made abortion legal statewide in 1973.
Michael Dorf, a professor at Cornell Law School, said the majority of the court seemed to be dubious about secularism as a foundation for governmental decision-making.
The conservative judges, according to Dorf, “see secularism, which for centuries has constituted the liberal world’s conception of what it means to be neutral, as itself a sort of prejudice against religion.”
Conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch stated in the decision issued on Monday that the court wanted to stop public officials from becoming anti-religious while navigating the establishment clause. In no reality, according to Gorsuch, “may a government entity’s worries about hypothetical violations justify actual violations of an individual’s First Amendment rights.”
WALL OF SEPARATION
President Thomas Jefferson is credited with coining the phrase “wall of separation” between church and state in a letter he wrote in 1802. The clause forbids the establishment of a state religion and favouritism of one religion over another by the government.
In the three recent decisions, the court determined that government acts meant to uphold the separation of church and state had actually violated other First Amendment rights to free expression or the free exercise of religion.
But this strategy “leads us to a place where separation of church and state becomes a constitutional breach,” leftist Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in the Maine case.
Opinions differ on the degree of latitude that government officials should afford to religious expression by public servants, on public property, or by anyone participating in official proceedings. People who want a tight separation of church and state are worried that important Supreme Court precedents, such as a 1962 decision that forbade prayer in public schools, could be jeopardised.
According to Nick Little, legal director for the Center for Inquiry, a group promoting secularism and science, “the court has opened up a whole new door to what teachers, coaches, and government officials can do when it comes to evangelising to children.”
The court’s rulings, according to Lori Windham of the religious liberty advocacy group Becket, will permit more freedom of religion for people without compromising the establishment clause.
“The continued separation of church and state safeguards both entities. It forbids governmental interference with churches while simultaneously protecting various forms of religious expression “Windham threw in.
Christian plaintiffs were engaged in the majority of recent judgements involving religious freedom. However, the court has also supported adherents of other faiths, such as a Muslim woman in 2015 who was turned down for a retail sales position because she covered her head for religious reasons and a Buddhist death row inmate in Texas who requested a spiritual advisor be present at his execution in 2019.
The court also supported Christian and Jewish groups in appeals to official restrictions based on religious freedom, such as those placed on public gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to Nicole Stelle Garnett, a professor at Notre Dame Law School who co-wrote a brief supporting the football coach, the court was only stating that religious persons must be treated equally with other citizens.
Following the court’s reasoning that religious conduct in schools must be “coercive” in order to raise establishment clause concerns, numerous issues pertaining to religious conduct in schools may now be challenged again.