The Supreme Court will begin to hear cases for the fall semester on Oct. 4. Every year brings interesting cases and challenges related to the Constitution that reflect at least a little bit of what a handful of everyday people are going through — especially when it comes to religious liberty cases.
Whether it’s a religious foster organization trying to place orphaned children in homes, a single mother trying to ensure her child has access to the best private schools she can find, or houses of worship attempting to remain open during a pandemic, it’s important to observe the cases the Supreme Court hears: Its docket not only reflects current happenings and trends, but its decisions can shift cultural, religious, and legal paradigms.
“Last term was a big term for religious liberty,” Mark Rienzi, president of Becket, said on a recent press call. “We saw the justices address religious liberty in a wide range of contexts, from COVID, to the federal no-fly lists, to campuses, and of course to the big Fulton decision at the end of the term on Catholic foster care. I think the thread was that the justices … came together repeatedly to protect religious liberty and to recognize that the government needs to leave room for people to exercise their faith.”
Like the years before, this one will bring particular religious liberty challenges. Here are a few that might be on the Supreme Court’s docket.
In a case called Ramirez v. Collier, a man on death row facing imminent execution is asking for his pastor to pray for him in the death chamber. The Supreme Court already issued a stay of execution because of the dispute. So far, the state of Texas has failed to grant John Ramirez’s request to have his pastor pray aloud for him, or hold his hand in prayer, during the process of his execution in the death chamber. This case could be challenging and controversial as it involves complex issues such as current state laws about death row executions, human compassion, and religious liberty. It’s scheduled for argument before the court on Nov. 1.
It wouldn’t be a Supreme Court semester without a lawsuit involving nuns. In Diocese of Albany v. Emami, an order of nuns that provides healthcare services is involved in a large group of faith-based organizations challenging a New York state abortion mandate that would force the nuns to cover abortions in their health plans. The mandate does have a narrow religious exemption, but that’s not enough for nuns reaching out to all people of all walks of life. Along with another law firm, Becket has asked the Supreme Court to take on the case. It could decide within a few weeks whether or not to grant it.
Last year, the Supreme Court heard a school vouchers case, Espinoza v. The Montana Department of Revenue. It involved Montana’s refusal to allow parents to use vouchers for faith-based schools. In its landmark ruling, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the single mother and others who brought the case for more expansive voucher use. Carson v. Makin is similar. Maine provides funding to students in rural parts of the state who want to attend a secular prep school far away, but fails to treat students who want to attend local religious private schools the same. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in July, and oral argument is expected in late 2021 or early 2022.
The high school football coach fired for praying after games with his team members recently petitioned the Supreme Court to take up his case and reverse a recent 9th Circuit ruling that said he violated the establishment clause. In 2015, Bremerton School District in Washington state fired Joe Kennedy for giving motivational speeches and prayers after games, sometimes alone and sometimes accompanied by his team and the opposing team. If the Supreme Court took the case, they would have to navigate whether Kennedy is a government employee, whether he is entitled to First Amendment protections, and whether praying on school property is indeed a violation of those protections.
The Supreme Court can always take on a number of additional cases. Time will tell if this year proves similar to last year and if all the justices lean toward preserving people’s religious liberties.
Nicole Russell is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. She is a journalist in Washington, D.C., who previously worked in Republican politics in Minnesota. She was the 2010 recipient of the American Spectator’s Young Journalist Award.