Lost amidst the Supreme Court’s end of term fireworks affecting voting rights, affirmative action and marriage equality was the 50th anniversary of one of the Court’s most significant modern decisions reaffirming a different principle of individual liberty – government neutrality in matters of religion. This lack of fanfare is in part a testament to the enduring power of the ruling in Schempp v. Abington School District, which held unconstitutional a state law mandating that public school students begin each school day with a reading from the Bible and the Lord’s Prayer. Today’s subdued response contrasts sharply with the torrent of criticism following the original ruling in 1963, which included hate mail, protests, and legislative efforts to overturn the decision. But that quiet may be the calm before the storm, as the neutrality principle faces a new threat in the current Supreme Court, thanks to a case to be heard next term.
It may seem hard to imagine today, with our nation’s remarkable religious diversity and, for the most part, tolerance, that a Supreme Court decision upholding the principle that in matters of religion “the government is neutral, and, while protecting all, it prefers none, and it disparages none” could generate serious hostility. It is a particularly notable attribute when contrasted with the turmoil in Egypt and other Mideast nations involving the question of religious control of the government.
The reaction was in some ways an echo of the response to the decision the previous term in Engel v. Vitale, which held that an official state-sponsored school prayer was unconstitutional. But Schempp not only reaffirmed that holding, but enhanced the legal argument supporting it, with Justice Tom Clark’s opinion offering an expansive discussion of the history of religious liberty in the nation in support of the principle of separation of church and state. While acknowledging “that religion has been closely identified with our history and government,” Clark reiterated “the wholesome ‘neutrality’” expressed in prior cases which, he explained, “stems from a recognition of the teachings of history that powerful sects or groups might bring about a fusion of governmental and religious functions or a concert or … dependency of one upon the other to the end that official support of the State or Federal Government would be placed behind the tenets of one or of all orthodoxies.”
Liberty University v. Lew, the Fourth Circuit’s recent decision about the Affordable Care Act [ACA], should please no one. The opinion demonstrates the dangers of exempting religious organizations and individuals from the law. Take your pick. The court either exempted too many, or too few. Its middle ground unsatisfactorily addresses the First Amendment challenges to the Act.
Individual plaintiffs and Liberty University opposed the individual and employer mandates of the ACA. The individual mandate requires individuals to obtain minimum essential health care coverage or pay a penalty in their taxes. The employer mandate requires employers to provide affordable minimal essential health care coverage to full-time employees or face a tax penalty.
All plaintiffs are Christians morally opposed to abortion except to save the life of the mother. The most straightforward of their complaints alleged that their mandated insurance payments would wind up paying for abortions in violation of their constitutional and statutory rights. This is the simplest exemption argument in the case: plaintiffs think they should be exempt from the ACA because it burdens their religion.
The court quickly dismissed that argument. Under the Free Exercise Clause, it ruled, the ACA is a neutral law of general applicability that applies to everyone without singling out religions for disfavor. Moreover, the court decided, plaintiffs’ religion was not burdened by the mandates. Although plaintiffs alleged that their money would be used for abortion, other provisions of the ACA required that a plan without abortion coverage would always be available as a choice for consumers. Without a substantial burden on religion, neither the Free Exercise Clause nor the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (which prohibits the federal government from substantially burdening religion without a compelling government interest) was violated.
by Alexander Wohl. Mr. Wohl is an adjunct professor at American University Washington College of Law, speech writer in the federal government and a former Supreme Court Judicial Fellow. For more information about his new book on Justice Tom Clark and his son Attorney General Ramsey Clark, visit the Father, Son, and Constitution Facebookpage.
As the only father and son to serve as attorneys general of the United States, Tom and Ramsey Clark are an historically unique pair, a distinction made even more noteworthy by Justice Tom Clark’s decision to give up his seat on the Supreme Court in 1967 so that his son could become President Lyndon Johnson’s attorney general. The tag-team tenure in government of this father and son was an unprecedented shared proximity to power and policy influence during some of the most challenging, divisive, and triumphant periods in U.S. history, from World War II to the attacks of September 11, 2001. But their impact is more far-reaching. In combined careers of more than 100 years and lives spanning three centuries, the Clarks provide a useful lens through which to examine the complex relationship between government and individual citizens that has defined and shaped U.S. legal and social policy through the present day.
At the heart of both Tom and Ramsey Clark’s work were many issues addressing this balance: the extent to which individuals should be prosecuted for “dangerous” speech or associations, when to use invasive law enforcement tools such as wiretapping, what type or duration of confinement constitutes unlawful detention, and the kind of role the federal government itself can or should play in the development of various policies and the enforcement of individual constitutional principles.
On these and other thorny questions the Clarks at once offer a set of ideological bookends and proof that views can evolve over time, a combination largely absent in an environment today in which questions about law and policy increasingly lead to ideological stratification and decision makers ever more pigeonholed in their views. While Tom and Ramsey Clark had clear differences in their outlook and approach, they often found common ground on many issues, including gun control, juvenile crime, and civil rights, along the way learning from each other.
First, they have argued the Supreme Court yanked prayer and Bible readings from the public schools in the cases Engel v. Vitale and Abington v. Schempp. But neither of those cases did such things. Instead the Supreme Court in those cases prohibited organized religion in the public schools. In other words public school teachers and administrators had to stop leading students in religious activities. Those cases did not outlaw prayer or religion in the public schools; they just found that such activities must be truly student initiated.
There’s also the annual farce dubbed the “war on Christmas,” where, supposedly, secularists roam city halls and public squares demanding the removal of all vestiges of religion. There are also Supreme Court cases involving these clashes between government officials and individuals bent on festooning public spaces with religious and non-religious symbols. The cases can seem a bit absurd, but a takeaway -- if public officials open their public buildings and spaces to say a nativity display they’d better be prepared to open them to displays of other holidays celebrated during the winter and some secular symbols too, like giant candy-canes or snowmen. For too many Religious Right activists, however, it’s not enough to decorate churches and private homes with religious symbols of the holiday season, they must also adorn government buildings with them and if government officials don’t comply they’ll point to a “war on Christmas.”
Then there are government meetings and activities. From coast to coast there are city and town councils and other government bodies that like to open their public meetings with prayer. The use of prayer in government work has a long history. On the federal level, both chambers of Congress open each day with chaplains providing invocations and a marshal opens Supreme Court sessions, with “Oyez, oyez, God save the United States and this Honorable Court.”
As the nation has evolved, however, and become more diverse, unsurprisingly you’ve had more and more people question the use of prayer during government sessions. And here again, you have a ripe opportunity for Religious Right zealots to complain about attempts to force government officials to either forgo prayer altogether at their official functions or mix it up and include invocations from all kinds of religious groups.
The Supreme Court has touched upon prayer during government sessions, and today the Roberts Court agreed to consider a case – Town of Greece v. Galloway – that allows the high court to revisit precedent on government and prayer. The case arises from Greece, N.Y. where Christian prayer has frequently been used to open town board meetings. As The New York Times’ Adam Liptak reports the town’s prayer policy has been in place since 1999 and town officials have said that people of all faiths, including atheists, can offer invocations.
Apparently a bit of sanity has surfaced in the North Carolina legislature where a couple of lawmakers introduced a resolution declaring the state could establish an official religion. The Charlotte Observer reports that House Speaker Thom Tillis is saying the chamber will not vote on the resolution.
In this case Joint Resolution 494, which in part declared that the First Amendment does not apply to the states, showcases a couple of lawmakers who are either woefully ignorant of the U.S Constitution and First Amendment jurisprudence or are blatantly provocative.
First, as has been pointed out by a lot people like law school professors, much of the Bill of Rights do apply to the states. Starting in the 1920s federal courts ruled that the Constitution's 14th Amendment applies most of the Bill of Rights to the states.
Nevertheless, the lawmakers’ resolution states that the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which provides for a separation of religion and government, “does not apply to the states, municipalities, or schools.” The resolution also includes sections declaring the Constitution “does not prohibit states or their subsidiaries from making laws respecting an establishment of religion,” and that the N.C. legislature “does not recognize federal court rulings which prohibit and otherwise regulate the State of North Carolina, its public schools, or any political subdivisions of the State from making laws respecting an establishment of religion.”
Although the resolution does not specify what religion N.C. would officially recognize, it undoubtedly would be Christianity. The lawmakers pushing the resolution said they were doing so in part to provide a show of support to Rowan County Commissioners who are waging a legal battle to keep using Christian prayers at their public meetings. (The Supreme Court has ruled that if lawmakers feel the need to use prayer during official business, it should be nonsectarian, otherwise they leave themselves open to a First Amendment challenge. The ACLU has lodged a lawsuit against the county commission arguing that its prayer policy violates the separation of government and religion.)