Supreme Court continuously upholds religious freedoms
Promises are pledges that do more than just guarantee the promised something. It holds the person doing the promise accountable. The Supreme Court has kept the promise — the Constitutional amendment of religious freedom — since the framers penned what is now an almost 227-year-old basic right.
“Especially recently, I would say the Court has been very sympathetic to religious freedoms,” said Emily Berman, an assistant professor at the Law Center.
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees free exercise of religion and prohibits the government from establishing one — an amendment the Supreme Court regularly reviews to clarify its limits.
Two clauses protect freedom of religion: the establishment clause and the free exercise clause, Berman said. The former prevents the government from giving preference to one religion over another, while the latter protects people’s ability to practice their preferred religion, she said.
The Supreme Court is the head of the judicial branch – one of the three branches of government. The court is made up of nine justices, all appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Justices serve for life unless they retire or Congress impeaches and convicts them.
Berman said religious liberties don’t excuse compliance with government regulations that affect everyone in a general manner.
In Employment Division v. Smith, the plaintiff, a Native American, said smoking peyote was part of his religion and that a restriction violated his religious liberties, Berman said. But the regulation applies to everyone, not a specific group, she said.
The Court said rules don’t infringe on religious liberties if they don’t intentionally target specific groups, she said.
To implement regulations targeting specific groups, the Court said the government needs to prove a compelling government interest, she said.
In Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. City of Hialeah, the city passed a rule prohibiting people from sacrificing chickens, Berman said. Though it applied to everyone in a general manner, it primarily impacted only members of the church because of its focus on their religious customs, she said.
Courts examine regulations intentionally imposing limits on religious practices with strict scrutiny – the most difficult standard to meet, she said.
“Long story short, the government’s intention becomes important,” Berman said.
In Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the Court dealt with a rule of general applicability that banned discrimination based on sexual orientation, she said.
The plaintiff said the rule burdens the ability to freely exercise religion, Berman said.
Although people expected the Court to establish precedent on how to deal with similar cases, the Court treated it like the chicken case, she said.
“When the Colorado Civil Rights Commission ruled against the baker, someone in that commission made statements that were derogatory of religion,” Berman said.
They treated the rule as if it targeted religion because of the individual’s statement, she said.
But the Court gives deference to the executive branch in matters of national security, Berman said.
In the case involving President Donald Trump’s travel ban, the Court decided that national security concerns justified Trump’s actions, she said. The Court has less leeway to enquire on the government’s motives in these situations, she said.
Berman said religious freedom was one of the reasons colonists came from England.
“You could say free exercise and the establishment clause were sort of reactions to things that the framers objected to under English rule,” Berman said. “It was sort of one of the founding ideas of the United States.”
Caryn Tamber-Rosenau, an assistant professor of Jewish Studies and Religious Studies, said humans have a desire to find meaning and that they find it in the idea of a higher power.
“Life can be really confusing and scary and terrible at times, and the idea that everything happens for a reason can be helpful to people,” Tamber-Rosenau said.
Religion helped people understand the natural world, and it’s a system for organizing life, Tamber-Rosenau said.
Belief creates a sense of comfort for people, and ritual and practice help organize their lives, she said.
“It’s a way of connecting you to your ancestors,” Tamber-Rosenau said. “If you’re a Muslim and you’re observing Ramadan, and you know that your ancestors have observed Ramadan, that has to be really powerful.”