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.
Much like the COVID-19 pandemic itself, AU’s work to ensure this public health crisis is not exploited to misuse religious freedom and undermine church-state separation also has gone through many phases.
AU spent much of the first year urging government officials and courts to protect both public health and religious freedom by declining to grant houses of worship and other religious organizations exemptions from in-person gathering limits. In dozens of friend-of-the-court briefs filed with courts around the country, and in letters to elected officials, AU stressed that the Constitution does not mandate such exemptions – particularly when they threaten the health of other people.
The majority of courts agreed with us, including the U.S. Supreme Court – at first. But with the arrival of Amy Coney Barrett creating a majority faction of justices who’ve shown hostility toward church-state separation, the high court soon began to grant religious exemptions to gathering limits, starting in New York right before Thanksgiving 2020.
The arrival of coronavirus vaccines early in 2021 meant public health orders relating to gathering limits – and the resulting demands for exemptions from those orders – declined significantly, though not before the U.S. Supreme Court granted a few more harmful exemptions in California cases. And not before several state legislatures introduced, and, in a few cases, passed, bills that limit the ability of officials to place any restrictions on houses of worship in future public health or safety crises.
However, as vaccines became more available and government officials and employers began requiring people to get immunized, vaccine resistance became more entrenched and demands for religious exemptions from the vaccine requirements grew. AU has filed several briefs in COVID-19 vaccine cases, including before the Supreme Court, noting that a long line of court decisions makes clear that the Constitution does not require religious exemptions from vaccination orders. The Supreme Court so far has declined to grant religious exemptions to COVID vaccine orders, including in a pair of New York cases last week.
As the Omicron variant causes COVID cases to surge around the country, and as pandemic fatigue sets in, there’s no doubt objections to public health orders and demands for religious exemptions will continue. AU’s expertise is not in public health – that’s why we lean on the scientists and health professionals to determine how best to keep people safe. Our role is to ensure religious freedom is not misused as a right to risk people’s lives. With your support, we’ll do our part to protect both church-state separation and public health.