Religion on the Docket: SCOTUS Decides on Cases with Religious Ramifications

U.S. Supreme Court building. (Bob Korn/Shutterstock)

(ReligionLink) -- Perhaps NPR’s Nina Totenberg put it best when she said the docket for the 2021-2022 U.S. Supreme Court term is “a humdinger with major cases involving the biggest social issues of the day.”

With a notably altered composition after the addition of three Trump appointees, the court now features six reliably conservative members. With that makeup, SCOTUS is set to decide on significant social controversies related to abortion, the separation of church and state, government surveillance and normative clarity around the scope of free expression.

The news cycle on these cases started back in October as oral arguments began and three decisions were already issued. The churn of news is picking back up again as some cases are just now being argued and other rulings are handed down.

Just as this edition of ReligionLink was about to go to press, the decision on Shurtleff v. Boston came out. Then, quite dramatically a draft opinion from Justice Samuel Alito was leaked to Politico, wherein he writes that the 1973 Roe v Wade decision legalizing abortion is “egregiously wrong.” The leak is unprecedented and if the draft is issued as a majority ruling, it would overturn the constitutional right to abortion in the U.S.

This ReligionLink will get you up to speed with background explainers, resources and experts for covering the most relevant, religion-related cases the Supreme Court is set to decide on this term — or for which it already issued judgment.

The cases in question

By our count, six separate cases have had religious aspects and angles to them in SCOTUS’ 2022 term. Among them are “issues that for years have been among the country’s most heated political debates,” said NPR’s Totenberg. The number and scope of them means that SCOTUS decisions on these cases result in precedent-flipping, life-changing and policy-transforming ramifications once decisions are handed down.

Given the recent tilt of the court in a more conservative direction in recent years, the high-stakes cases have taken on increased political heat. Pundits on both sides are ramping up for the aftermath and the next battle lines, whatever the rulings may be.

Below are a few summaries to get you up to speed on the six cases ReligionLink identified as particularly relevant for religion reporters and other “religion nerds.”

General overviews and background:

- Boston University School of Law professors discuss SCOTUS’ major 2022 cases and the potential implications of their decisions: “Guns, God, Abortion, Affirmative Action: US Supreme Court’s Historic 2022.”

- Writing for Northeastern University, Tanner Stening offers a review of the cases, with religion taking center stage: “Abortion, Guns, Religion: Here are the Major U.S. Supreme Court Cases for 2022.” 

- Former ReligionLink editor Kelsey Dallas (Deseret News) offers her overview of the term’s major religion-related cases: “The faith-related cases to watch in the Supreme Court’s new term.”

A rundown of religion-related cases:

Each of these cases will get more in-depth treatment on the ReligionLink site (with related stories and potential sources), but here are some quick summaries to get you started:

Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization — The scope of the constitutional right to abortion — and the fate of the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision — is at stake in this case, which involves an appeal by Mississippi to revive the state’s Republican-backed law that bans abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy. (From SCOTUSblog.com)

Carson v. Makin — The possibility of expanding — or restraining — religious rights is at issue in this case, which involves a challenge to a Maine tuition assistance program that bars taxpayer money from being used to pay for religious instruction in schools. (From SCOTUSblog.com)

Shurtleff v. Boston (DECIDED) — The Supreme Court ruled unanimously on May 2, 2022 that the city of Boston violated the Constitution when it rejected an application to fly a Christian flag on one of the three flagpoles in front of city hall. (From SCOTUSblog.com)

Kennedy v. Bremerton School District — This case will decide whether a public-school employee who says a brief, quiet prayer by himself while on school property and visible to students is engaged in government speech that lacks any First Amendment protection; and (2) whether, assuming that such religious expression is private and protected by the free speech and free exercise clauses, the establishment clause nevertheless compels public schools to prohibit it.  (From SCOTUSblog.com

Ramirez v. Collier (DECIDED) — The Supreme Court ruled on March 24, 2022, that a man on death row in Texas could have his pastor touch him and pray out loud during the prisoner’s execution. The decision came after an almost three-year-long dispute over the presence of spiritual advisers at executions. The ruling, which urged states to adopt clear rules for the future and instructed courts to allow executions to go forward with religious accommodations when necessary, brought together justices from both ends of the ideological spectrum. (From SCOTUSblog.com)

Federal Bureau of Investigation v. Fazaga  (DECIDED) — The Supreme Court decided in March that a provision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act does not trump the “state secrets” privilege, a doctrine that allows the government to withhold information in litigation when disclosing it would compromise national security. The ruling was a blow for the three Muslim men who filed a lawsuit claiming they were targeted by an FBI counterterrorism investigation because of their religion and numerous other Muslim Americans who faced what they deemed unreasonable and illegal surveillance in the wake of 9/11. Broader questions about the interpretation of FISA remain for another day. (From SCOTUSblog.com)

 

Read more about the cases and additional sources on ReligionLink.


 

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