I have been working on a series of posts on this topic. First, I recognize this as a hot button issue in the current election. Secondly, there are a lot of cases.
There are several freedoms which we enjoy. The first is the freedom to practice the religion of our choice. This sounds simple enough, but it is not. Suppose the practice of our religion calls for killing goats or taking drugs- is that protected?
Suppose the practice of our religion means we can’t work on weekends- do companies have to make allowances in their policies? Suppose our religion believes all wars are evil (actually they do!), is forcing us to pay taxes a violation of our religion?
If a person is refused work because they wear a scarf in accordance with the Muslim religion, is this a violation of their religious rights? How far does a company have to go to accommodate the religious rights of individuals? Their policies are supposed to be religion neutral- but if they need to know the religion of a person, in order to make exceptions- is that going too far?
There have been cases involving both the rights of individuals and churches. A synagogue or mosque which is denied a building permit because of anti Jewish or Muslim seems immediately contrary to our values and laws. But one case involved a church which wanted to expand it’s building into an area which was zoned as an historical area- does that sufficiently burden the right to practice one’s religion?
Obamacare has been contested in the past and will in the future because it requires companies and people to pay for services which may violate their beliefs- such as contraception and abortion. But, must the government or insurance companies carve our exceptions for every individual who claims that the medical insurance burdens their religion in some way? If we as a society bend over too far on religious liberties, we end up with individuals deciding which laws they have to follow, or a legal system unto themselves.
All of the above, relates to freedom of religion. There is also the freedom from religion generally known at the separation of church and state. A lot of these cases were headline news- but many have been decided. The famous school prayer case (1962) was about the following prayer:
“Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our country. Amen.”
It was unconstitutional. A moment of silent meditation has replace school prayer for at least 54 years. There have been a host of other cases, such as a prayer recited before a football game.
Can a monument be place in front of a state courthouse, proclaiming all non-Christians to unworthy? Of course not, as this would be an obvious attempt to indoctrinate a religious practice. But religious message were done in a more subtle manner- mixed in with non-secular quotes, is that a violation of the separation of church and state? In 2005, there were 2 cases decided on religious monuments, one in favor of keeping the monument and the other one against. And at least one judge concurred in both decisions. So, it really gets down to what is on the monument.
The very interesting point of all religious freedom questions, it that both liberals and conservatives on the court support religious rights- a strange outcome to most.
The Muslim woman that was refused her sales job won her case in 2015. It was really more about the Equal Opportunity act provisions than First Amendment. Justice Scalia wrote the opinion, and all liberal justices concurred in an 8-1 decision. Only Judge Thomas dissented- but maybe he was right, because companies now have the added burden of considering religious beliefs when they ask their sale personnel to dress properly for the job. This is exactly why these cases become messy, because the enforcement of a perceived individual right (in this case to wear a scarf) adds an immediate burden to someone else’s right (deciding appropriate dress codes).
It also becomes messy because the Supreme Court can only decide based on the facts of the case, the laws passed by Congress and prior rulings of the court. So- no points given to creative and innovative solutions. Nor are all decisions likely to be popular or easily understood by the public. Nor should this be the case! The decisions are the result of deep legal scrutiny involving hundreds of pages of briefs and logic, certainly not given to the whim of the public. The justices on the court are highly intelligent legal scholars.
This is exactly the point made by Justice Scalia in an interview in 2009, and boy he right!