Editor’s Note: The year 2021 was full of ups and downs – for the country, and for church-state separation. As the year draws to a close, we're looking back at the top 10 church-state stories, how Americans United rose to the challenge to defend religious freedom and what’s on the horizon for 2022.
There’s no denying that advocates of church-state separation face rough sailing before the U.S. Supreme Court these days. But through our cases, friend-of-the-court briefs, educational campaigns and coalition efforts, Americans United is making sure our perspective is heard.
Three cases with church-state overtones are pending before the high court. All present threats to the church-state wall:
Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization: This case, which concerns the legality of a Mississippi law that bans abortions after 15 weeks, could have a seismic effect. Christian nationalist groups are urging the court to use the case to undermine or even overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that established a right to legal abortion. The case was argued Dec. 1, and AU President and CEO Rachel Laser spoke at a rally outside the court to stress the connection between attacks on religious and reproductive freedom. The day after the arguments, AU’s National Organizer and Student Network Manager Alicia Johnson moderated an online panel discussion about the case with experts from the Center for Reproductive Rights and SHERo Mississippi. AU and other groups filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, arguing that overturning Roe would stoke interfaith discord. (AU has a long history of supporting reproductive rights. Read about it here.)
Carson v. Makin: In rural areas without public high schools, Maine pays for students to attend private schools instead. This program now requires those schools to provide the equivalent of public education, not religious education. The court will decide if Maine’s taxpayers must subsidize religious instruction as well. Oral arguments took place Dec. 8. AU filed a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that Maine’s policy of not providing government funding for private religious instruction is in line with long-standing Supreme Court precedent that states can protect their taxpayers’ religious freedom by refraining from funding distinctly religious activities – including religious instruction. AU’s Laser moderated an online panel discussion with experts from the National Federal of Teachers and BJC to analyze the case.
Shurtleff v. Boston: Officials in Boston have flown secular flags at city hall to mark certain special events when requested by private groups. A Christian nationalist group demanded that city officials fly the Christian flag; they sued when the city refused. AU’s Legal Department filed a brief in this case yesterday, arguing that the city has no obligation to hoist the Christian flag. Oral arguments will occur Jan. 18.
The Supreme Court may add more church-state cases to its docket. In Washington state, a high school football coach is insisting that he has a right to pray with players and other students on the field after games. Americans United is representing the school district in this case, Kennedy v. Bremerton School District. And in Gordon College v. Deweese-Boyd, AU represents a professor of social work at a Christian liberal arts college in Massachusetts who was denied a promotion after disagreeing with the school’s policies on LGBTQ rights.
Americans United was active in lower courts in 2021 as well. We and our allies won an important decision in a case dealing with a Colorado man on parole whose First Amendment religious freedom rights were violated when he was sent back to jail after he refused to take part in worship services, Bible studies, and religious counseling mandated by his parole officer. We also reached a settlement in a long-running case in Kentucky challenging unwanted religious proselytization and discrimination in state-funded foster care programs.
Finally, as we noted recently, AU worked hard in 2021 to ensure that the nation’s response to the COVID pandemic was based on sound public health policy, and we opposed efforts by some religious groups to use a dangerous definition of religious freedom that exposes others to harm.
Every court, from local jurisdictions all the way up to the Supreme Court, needs to hear that only separation of church and state can protect religious freedom for all. With your help, Americans United will continue to share that message.